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‘Tis the season for labor organizing

Teamsters return to raise awareness for port truck driver rights. Their visit to Port Wentworth was the first since the controversial viral video was taken.

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Truck driver Richard Ford (l.) handed out leaflets on Broughton Street last week with fellow Teamsters Jerome Irwin (center) and Ben Speight.
  • Truck driver Richard Ford (l.) handed out leaflets on Broughton Street last week with fellow Teamsters Jerome Irwin (center) and Ben Speight.

WITH THE holiday shopping season in full effect, let’s take a moment to remember how those gifts and goods get to the shelves.

It may come as a shock, but it isn’t Santa or his elves who deliver all those toys and clothes and Xboxes to our favorite stores.

Those billions of dollars’ worth of imports don’t come by sleigh, either—they arrive by 18-wheelers operated by humans, many of whom earn poverty wages and work 16-hour days without overtime or benefits.

Efforts to unionize port truck drivers around the country have been met with resistance from private trucking companies, sometimes with the support of public servants. Last June, local police ran a group of union organizers out of Port Wentworth for handing out leaflets outside of XPO Cartage, a subsidiary of XPO Logistics, the port’s largest trucking company with over 150 contract drivers.

Three members of Teamsters Local 728 were charged with impeding traffic in a public roadway, though the incident took place on a dead end street.

A video clip captured from one of the officer’s bodycams and made available through the Freedom of Information Act went viral in September, revealing a distinct aversion to the subject matter of the leaflets, which provided information about trucker’s labor rights.

Teamster attorney Michael Schoenfeld responded by filing a civil rights case against the City of Port Wentworth Police Department. Both cases were dropped last month, though complaints of coercion and the misclassification of truck drivers against XPO Logistics lodged with the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are still pending.

Last week, the Teamsters returned to Port Wentworth for the first time since the video was taken. Local 728 Director Ben Speight and activists Jerome Irwin, Kedrix Murray and Richard Ford took up their former spot on the public right-of-way outside the gates of XPO Cartage, legally informing workers of their right to organize. No police showed up, which they took as a good sign that the tide may be turning.

“We’re hoping the XPO case will be a catalyst to spur the rest of the truck companies to come on board,” said Speight.

“Business interests consider it antithetical to their profit goals, but paying these port drivers a living wage will only create more stability and efficiency in the industry.”

The plight of truck drivers stems from their classification as independent contractors by companies that transport cargo in and out of America’s major ports.

Unlike other employees associated with port business, truck drivers must pay for their own gas and rig, often spending hours waiting in line for a load without compensation for their time.

Deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980 decimated the earning potential of the job, earning it the current reputation as “sweatshops on wheels.”

Union organizers have sought justice in the courts, and FedEx Ground paid out a $224 million settlement to drivers deemed “misclassified” by the employer in 2014.

Teamsters literature reports the group has helped win more than $35M in back for its members, and several other class action suits, including one against Mississippi-based KLLM Transport on Nov. 14 involving drivers at the Port of Los Angeles, remain open.

Litigation isn’t the only recourse for addressing labor law violations. Union organizers are enlisting consumers to help pressure trucking companies into upholding regulations.

After their trucker leafletting session in Port Wentworth last Wednesday, Speight and his crew drove over to Broughton Street to hand out a different set of flyers in front of Savannah’s Michael Kors shop.

In solidarity with port truck drivers in Los Angeles, there have been actions staged across the country at Michael Kors retail stores, where goods are delivered by the luxury brand’s business partner, Intermodal Bridge Transport. IBT has been accused of wage theft by its contract drivers and is the subject of a landmark NLRB case that has tipped in favor of claims of misclassification.

Against a backdrop of mannequins wearing faux fur jackets and holding $300 leather tote bags, the activists attempted to engage passersby about the issue.

“This is not a boycott,” assured Irwin, the president of the Savannah Regional Central Labor Council.

“We’re just raising awareness and letting Michael Kors know that the people hauling his freight aren’t being treating fairly.”

Ford, a 35-year veteran of the trucking industry and a lifelong union man, added, “That’s right, they work too many hours with no benefits, no health care, while one of the handbags they’re hauling costs more than they make in a day.”

Michael Kors employees were friendly but had no comment regarding the presence of the organizers.

The group spent about an hour handing out leaflets before heading to Statesboro to meet with a group of Georgia Southern bus drivers. Before they left, Speight commented on the grandeur of Broughton’s holiday displays and the seemingly effortless spending of shoppers.

“It’s a world away from the Garden City Port,” he said, shaking his head as he watched customers peruse expensive wares through the windows.

“People need to know that everything we buy has a hidden cost.”

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