Notes From the Underground Economy

Are companies at the Port of Long Beach cheating truckers out of their rightful wages?

Notes From the Underground Economy

"Trucking makes me feel like a benefit to society," Adolfo Meyers says, "and I'm doing what I like to do. It's what I've done since I was young. Unfortunately, now, this job seems worth nothing."

A waiter pours coffee into his mug. Meyers is a troquero at the Port of Long Beach, one of the busiest in the world, and the focal point of the multibillion-dollar trucking industry in Southern California, the profession that keeps nearly every business in the region humming. He's speaking through a translator at Blackbird Cafe in Long Beach—Meyers' English is decent, but, he says, he's much more comfortable telling his story in Spanish. And telling his story is already dangerous. ("Adolfo Meyers" is a pseudonym, but his real name has appeared in previous stories about port truck drivers.)

"Everyone becomes so afraid to speak up because they can fire us," says Meyers. "I'm always afraid, but I have to speak up. It's my money; they're stealing my money."

Lining up for the day's loads
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Lining up for the day's loads
Coral Itzcalli: Advocate for troqueros
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Coral Itzcalli: Advocate for troqueros

He leases a big rig with Carson-based Shippers Transport Express, moving "short haul" loads—deliveries within Southern California. But the Mexico native isn't technically an employee of Shippers; as an independent contractor, his truck is considered a moving and rumbling small business. Meyers has to cover the truck's lease, trucking insurance, maintenance and diesel, all of which, he says, Shippers deducts from his paycheck. His pay is determined by how many hauls he can take per day from the port to the cargo's intended location and back. Stuck in traffic, or a long wait to load or unload, problems endemic to trucking? Tough.

"Now, when I stop working for a company, I don't take my truck; I take my vest. The company keeps everything," Meyers says. (As of press time, Shippers did not respond to requests for an interview.) "All the money we invested in the truck, the lease payments—things have gotten worse in the past five years. We're earning wages that we used to get 20 to 30 years ago. Right now, we're paying to work. The little money that we do earn is just barely enough to get by."

If Meyers grosses $2,300 one week, after the deductions, what he takes home is around $900 to $1,000; on that take-home amount, he still has to pay taxes at the end of the year. On top of that, he says, any repairs to the truck must be performed by a company mechanic. "If I took it to another mechanic," he says, "they would probably fire me."

Meyers is a part of the port's underground economy, or the shadow economy, terms used by Teamsters and labor activists to describe the port's dirty secret: a system of employment that designates truckers as independent contractors so the port's trucking companies can avoid paying truck costs, taxes, benefits, workers' compensation and hourly rates yet essentially ties said truckers to one company as though they are indentured servants. It's a controversy that has plagued the port's trucking industry for the past 30 years, pinning unions desperate to tap into a potential membership pool of thousands against an industry that will do anything possible to make sure this day never comes, with the independent contractors—who, by law, aren't allowed to unionize, let alone strike—stuck in the middle.

Some labor activists have even dubbed the independent-contractor system as "labor laundering." These terms, concepts and narratives conjure up a grand image of a silent workforce sneaking through the ports, unnoticed and uncared for. Trucking companies, on the other hand, tell drivers they have a great opportunity to run their own businesses if they sign up as independent contractors.

"From the very beginning, they made us believe we were our own independent companies," Meyers says. "Back then, we had our own trucks and had a little bit more control over who we worked for. But in reality, the ones who always had the control over our work, our wages, really everything, were the companies.

"The company decides what truck you're going to rent," he adds, "what time you're going to work, and what dates you're going to start. I finish working every day between 1 and 3 a.m. I start at 3 or 4 p.m. We have to be there the latest by 4 p.m. because if we don't, they might not get us a truck. But by 10 a.m., I have to wake up and call the office to see if they're going to have work for me."

And if he refuses a "bad" load—cargo hauls that pay low rates yet take a long travel time—he's not given any more work that day.

The controversy is now big enough that state and federal investigators are taking a much closer look at the port trucking industry's use of independent contractors. Plus, they've raised the amount of fines that entities will pay if they are found guilty of what they call "misclassification," or treating independent contractors as employees with none of the benefits, which labor activists say is endemic at the port.

Meyers claims that if he were his own independent company, he would be able to take his truck to any company he wanted, shop around, and set his own schedule. But that's not his current reality.

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16 comments
Bill7456
Bill7456

 I was leaving work and attempting to go home, but my car would not start.  Mike Fox was walking by and asked what was wrong and I said I guess I have a bad battery. Mr. Fox pulled out his wallet and gave me a hundred dollars. He didn't say I had to pay it back, but said you work hard and are having bad luck, I hope this helps. Mr. Fox didn't have to do that. How many other owners of any company would do that for someone in their company?  Bill

KMA367
KMA367

Cry me a river Pedro. I have NO sympathy for these assholes. They busted the union 30 years ago by scabbing and undercutting the legitimate trucking companies. Now they are cry babying all over the place. They made this mess themselves and now they have to live with  it. The CHP needs to set up a road block on the 710 and impound every single one of their unsafe trucks and revoke each and every one of their illegally obtained Class A CDL - through crooked driving schools and equally crooked DMV employees who issue licenses to these obviously unqualified drivers. Get them and their trucks OFF THE ROAD and put legal, safe trucks on the road along with well paid, honest and competent union men to drive them. 

j.john40
j.john40

YEA THOSE GUYS AT FOX TRANSPORTATION ( MIKE AND BRITTNEY FOX ) ARE REAL CROOKS THEY STEAL FROM EVERYBODY AND TREAT THERE EMPLOYEES LIKE CRAP THEY

fretsward
fretsward

Illegitimate parasites now have the temerity to complain about depressed wages.

You can't even make this up. Mexico, the gift that keeps on giving...

Funkyonion
Funkyonion

Beware deception by Teamsters. Just saying....

They play dirty. It is all a snowball clusterflop. People milk work comp. "Just business" tools employees. Unions follow the money without scruples. Argue any side you want; it's blemished.

carlsbadsurfking
carlsbadsurfking

Yea..its a Bracerro Program...just a ripoff..like so MUCH of the trucking business....Thieves,

Crooks, and Liars.......they call themselves..Executives...and Businessmen...how funny....all over

Los Angeles these port trucks are Smashing into Cars....the Bracerro jumps out and runs away...LOL.

carlsbadsurfking
carlsbadsurfking

Sure the driver doesnt make money unless he hauls ass thru traffic

to get a certain amount of trip done per day....you KNOW he is in a Hurry...and SAFETY is

NOT the first thing on his mind..no MONEY is. Hourly wage is better...from a Safety Standpoint..for the general public....FMCSA is now investigating Brokers and Shipper per CSA Program....This operation should be on the top of the list.

Whophantom
Whophantom

This is tantamount to the "bracero program" where you were paid for how much you picked, not how many hours you worked. I'm surprised Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis didn't get involved with this rip off  by Corporate Money Mongers.

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@KMA367 Wow, what a bunch of nativist bullshit...you sound just like Samuel Gompers railing against Bohunks, you do!

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@fretsward This story says NOTHING about illegal immigration, yet moron asses like  you will try to make it such. GUESS WHAT?! ILLEGALS MADE YOUR COMPUTER!!!

KMA367
KMA367

@Funkyonion I'd rather share the road with a bunch of UPS Teamster drivers than these idiots!

KMA367
KMA367

@GustavoArellano @fretsward - Then how come all the unsafe, ghetto drivers are MEXICAN? They may not be "Illegal" but they sure are Mexican and they bring all their ignorant Mexican mentality with them.

fretsward
fretsward

@GustavoArellano

Your boy banter, excuse me, ploy unerringly parallels the antediluvian sacred practice of pseud epigraphy whereas an undistinguished writer (cringe), would hide behind generations of illegitimates of the past, claiming venerable authority for his own innovations and psychobabble. Sort of like claiming that the Southwestern United States were owned by Mexico.

An underground economy and having to use interpreters?

You are the quintessential Rham Dass…

 
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