Port of Seattle truckers rally as walkout passes second week
Port of Seattle short-haul truckers have been striking for more than two weeks, and the Port says it will be a struggle to address their concerns while keeping the Port competitive.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
A walkout by Port of Seattle truckers is gaining visibility and support, as hundreds of drivers brace for no paycheck.
The work stoppage, which began Jan. 31, continued Monday morning with a rally that attracted 300 people to the Duwamish Waterway. Afterward, dozens of truckers chanted at the doors of Pacer Cartage, a California-based company that has been increasing its Seattle operations.
"We are powerful right now. A lot of drivers are promising to join us," said Zacharias Abebe, a member of the new Seattle Port Truckers Association.
To date, no vessels or cargo loads have been turned away, the Port says. Trucking firms have hired their own employees, or nonstriking drivers, to move containers.
"It's been a little bit of a slowdown here and there, but the Port continues to be open and operating," said Peter McGraw, spokesman for the Port's maritime division.
McGraw said the dispute is between terminal operators, trucking companies and the drivers themselves, since the Port doesn't dispatch the drivers.
Seattle-area container trade supports "thousands of family-wage jobs, and we want to keep the cargo moving," he said.
Short-haul truckers typically are paid $40 to $44 a load to haul containers between the waterfront and the BNSF Railway yard in Sodo or the Union Pacific railyard near Georgetown. Others go to warehouses in the Green River Valley.
After truckers pay for vehicle insurance and maintenance, incomes average about $30,000 a year. Many say they lack health insurance and are not allowed to use restrooms at waterfront terminals.
Most are classified as independent contractors, but the Teamsters union aspires to organize them.
Their travails are known to Port commissioners, but some of them say that if Seattle unilaterally imposes rules or costs, the cutthroat competition could send shipping business to Canada or the Gulf Coast.
In normal times, about 1,400 trucks travel along the Seattle waterfront. Activists say that close to 400 drivers are staying away in protest.
Political work is under way on several fronts:
• On Friday, trucker activists met with Port staff, trucking managers and railroad officials, who agreed to keep the dialogue going. Port CEO Tay Yoshitani used the metaphor of a ship: "We're all in the same boat," he said.
According to Abebe: "The Port of Seattle CEO said they will do their best to sort out the problem. That's about it, just a promise they're giving us. What we're demanding now is action."
• Local elected officials, including Metropolitan King County Council members Joe McDermott and Larry Gossett, listened to truckers at a town-hall session Saturday in Tukwila.
• Port Commission President Gael Tarleton said Monday that talks are under way — led by Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, and Gov. Chris Gregoire — to deal with "urgent safety issues." One legislative bill would make private companies responsible for weight violations or flawed chassis that truckers are given to haul daily. Currently, drivers are fined during State Patrol safety sweeps.
• More controversially, the House has passed a bill to classify drivers in the short-haul, or "drayage," industry, as company employees. Backers hope this would protect drivers with state safety rules and give them the right to join labor unions. Most are classified as independent contractors.
Meanwhile, some strikers have lost jobs because hauling companies' accounts were canceled, said driver Yonas Tibebu, standing in a planter box along lower Spokane Street Monday.
"I don't know how much longer we can stretch it," he said. Still, he was glad to see unions and the broader public join Monday's rally. "It makes a difference."
Abebe said he expects a "negative paycheck" that charges him for insurance, though he's not hauling freight lately.
Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, said the Port of Seattle should support better working conditions and avoid a race to the bottom. "There's enough wealth in this system, in the money that goes through the Port, to give this group a living-wage job," he said.
A full solution could take years, Tarleton said. Federal courts have blocked attempts in California to overhaul the Port trucking business.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.