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Nearly 150 truck drivers effectively shut down shipping out of the Port of Seattle when they went to the state capitol in Olympia instead of the port, to protest dangerous work conditions in the trucking industry. Drivers were so concerned about the way the industry treats them that they risked their careers to make their voices heard.
This week the truck drivers – who toil under the guise of false self-employment – are making it their job to sound the alarm on occupational hazards, overweight containers, shoddy equipment, risks to motorists, and the culprits responsible for these rampant safety violations: their employers and their giant retail shipper clients like Wal-Mart, Sears, and Target.
The trucking bosses at Pacer, Seattle Freight, Western Ports and others were stunned, but the state troopers weren’t. Washington’s top cops testified before lawmakers right alongside the workers, detailing a dizzying array of dangers associated with the drayage industry: Chronic safety violations so serious that an investigative journalist discovered late last year that officers pulled 32% of rigs they inspected outside the terminals off the road — double the rate for trucks throughout the state. When specially trained troopers conducted more thorough inspections in 2011, King 5 TV reported, 58% of Port of Seattle cargo vehicles were yanked. And according to Captain Jason Berry’s testimony, an astonishing 80% have been put out of service during certain recent time periods.
The drivers called upon legislators to support HB 2527, which would address many of the concerns they have. They called upon allies to help spread their story and make the dangers of the trucking industry more widely known:
Semere Woldu, who has been hauling cargo at the Port of Seattle for 8 years, told the panel:
“Our work is extremely dangerous. So the safety laws are very important. Unfortunately though, we drivers are forced to pay for violations that we are not responsible for. We often get tickets or are cited for faulty equipment that we don’t own. One time, my boss knew I had a heavy load. He told me to go by the scale early in the morning when it was closed to avoid having the load weighed.”
More drivers cited these illegal pressures their employers put them under, and shared their fears for their personal safety and the lives of motorists. “Every day, I haul two or three loads that are overweight, possibly putting myself and others at risk,” said Aynalem Moba, a 14-year port veteran. “The truck could tip over. I’m afraid I might kill myself or someone else. Sometimes we’re carrying hazardous materials, and we don’t know it.”
Some explained the retaliation they face for blowing the whistle. They get banned from the terminals or are denied work by their dispatchers. They also told the legislators that if they get too many safety violations they risk losing their commercial drivers’ license and their livelihoods.
“The shipping and rail lines force us to use faulty equipment. One time I got a load that was 4-5,000 pounds overweight, and it was on a chassis that was insufficient for carrying heavy loads. The company told me to take it anyway,” said 13-year driver Calvin Borders. “I was really nervous about it. All that extra weight puts a lot of wear and tear on the truck. It blew my wheel seal…It cost me $450. My truck is my livelihood. If it doesn’t work, I don’t work.”
Some of the protestors have already been suspended. That has only sparked their co-workers to walk off the job in solidarity – and disgust. On Wednesday, these non-unionized men and women who are desperately seeking the protections that collective bargaining rights would provide were leafleting the terminals and the docks, positively engaging the dockworkers brothers and sisters at the longshoremen’s union, vowing to stay united, keep fighting for their rights, and all of our safety.
Many of the complaints at the Port of Seattle echo those made by warehouse workers in Chicago, California and elsewhere, where workers are hired as 'independent' contractors so companies can exploit them and pressure them into dangerous work conditions.