How can Seattle Taxi cab drivers help Georgia container port workers? According to an in-depth story on worker’s rights from In These Times, the past experiences of unionized cab drivers in Seattle may offer hope to those workers fighting for rights in one of the busiest ports in the country.
The story explains the plight of the port workers in Savannah, Georgia. The port is the 4th largest in the country, with income nearing $15 billion annually. However, the booming business has not resulted in benefit for the thousands of workers who run the port, usually delivering products via truck.
In the 1970s the industry was deregulated, which resulted in those port truck drivers being re-classified from regular employees to “independent contractor.” As we have often discussed, this classification issue has significant effects on employees, because it usually means that the employees lose various benefit and are often forced to pay an increased tax bill. Employers usually prefer to have independent contractors, because it allows them to pay significantly less for their services. Those incentives often push employers to skirt the law, however, classifying workers as independent contractors when they are actually employees.
In the case of port workers, they are paid only by the load (not the hour) and do not receive any benefits, like retirements support. In addition, the workers are required to maintain their own trucks. Those who do not own their own trucks actually lease it from their bosses. In other words, they are paying to do work. The costs of taking care of their vehicle or leasing it can take anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the worker’s actual salary. All of this has led observers to call the arrangement “sharecropping on wheels.”
Fixing the Problem
Workers are looking at different ways to fix the issues, ensuring reclassification and respect for workers’ rights. One main problem is that the workers do not have an official voice, because independent contractors do not have unionization rights. To turn things around, local Teamsters organizations are actually pointing to Seattle taxi cab drivers as the ideal example.
Last year, hundreds of taxi drivers in Seattle joined a local Teamsters union under a new organization known as the Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators Association. The cab drivers were pushed to action because of the costs associated with running their operations in the city.
One of the key issues for Washington cab drivers was the excessive fees for liability insurance. Interestingly, the drivers are forced to pay insurance rates that exceeded even those of very dangerous professionals–like construction workers. In addition, there was lax enforcement of existing regulations to protect drivers. The cab drivers hope that by joining an organized unit they will gain some political clout to demand better protections and fairness.
Back in Georgia, the port workers are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Seattle cab drivers. The group certainly faces an uphill climb, as Georgia is not known as a union-friendly environment. However, hopefully some progress can be made in the coming months to address the classification problem and issues with wages, truck repair, and more.
One key lesson from the fight is the reminder that workers everywhere will not see a change in condition or improvement unless they are proactive. Employers engage in unfair practices all the time to increase their bottom line. If employees remain silent, nothing will change. Those who believe that an industry or workplace is not being run fairly should contact an employment lawyer to learn about their legal rights.