Road safety and economic justice

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This past Monday, President’s Day, I testified in Olympia in support of House Bill 2395, which would classify short-haul truck drivers at the Port of Seattle, known as drayage truckers, as employees rather than independent contractors.

This issue has been raised in response to the recent stoppage at the Port when hundreds of drivers walked off the job for two weeks to highlight unfair working conditions.

During the stoppage, I participated in a forum with hundreds of short-haul truck drivers who work at the Port of Seattle. The event was co-sponsored by Port Commissioner Rob Holland and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott.   King County Councilmember Larry Gossett and Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell also joined me in the conversation.  We heard drivers share stories about the challenges they face earning a living wage in this industry.

The Seattle Times had a good piece from 2008 interviewing drivers, sharing their stories and the challenges they face. Most of these drivers are immigrants and people of color from working class backgrounds. The average take home pay for these drivers is about $30,000 per year.

Though there has been work to organize these drivers for several years, this recent work stoppage was sparked in response to recent enforcement of commercial vehicle safety laws by the City of Seattle and Washington State Patrol.  Since November 2011, the city has inspected 206 trucks and found 426 tractor and chassis violations, with many of the warnings and citations falling upon drivers.

Last month 100 truck drivers went to Olympia to testify in favor of legislation that would shift some of the responsibilities for road safety and the safe transportation of cargo from the truck drivers, where responsibility currently lies, to the shipping companies, who own the chassis and provide drivers with their loads. Many of the drivers were threatened or retaliated against by their companies for speaking out. Some even had their wages withheld (although, thankfully, it appears they finally got paid).

As drivers have been putting their wages and lives on the line, I have been working to understand the city’s role in all of this.  This week, Councilmembers Harrell and Licata joined me in signing a letter from the Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee outlining the city’s primary interests: road safety and worker fairness.

These issues are inextricably linked.  Ensuring that workers have their basic health and safety needs met allows them to attend to the safety of their vehicles.  This includes speaking up when they see an unsafe condition or refusing an overweight load.  When a driver cannot afford to lose a day’s wage or fears retaliation from his employer, the result is unsafe trucks on our city streets.

Despite working for a single employer (a trucking company), when classified as independent contractors, drayage truck drivers do not have access to the workplace protections guaranteed to employees in Washington State, such as workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

Of course, nothing is that straightforward.

There are claims that this proposed state law would be pre-empted by Federal Law; that if we clarify that drivers are employees of trucking companies, then a national entity will sue and the state would have to spend precious public resources in a court battle.

However, I strongly believe these claims must not stop us from finding a solution for these workers and their families.

The Senate Committee on Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection will vote on Substitute House Bill 2395 tomorrow morning and we urge them to advance the bill and the rights of these workers.

This vote, or even the ultimate adoption of this law, is not the end of this struggle for these drivers, but rather the beginning of work that must be done.

It is unacceptable for workers in our city and our region to be treated as second class citizens.   Our community, our economy and the public’s safety depend on a safe, efficient and fair drayage industry.   The driver stoppage and recent data on vehicle violations suggest we have work to do.

So let’s get to work.