In California, Independent Truckers Face Uncertain Future

A California law making it harder for trucking companies to classify drivers as independent contractors is now in effect—with big implications for truckers at America’s largest ports.

Stephen Franklin

Independent drivers demonstrate July 13 against California’s new union-backed AB5 law, which some fear will cost the truckers their livelihoods as companies correctly reclassify them as employees—despite the potential for full-time benefits and other gains. CAROLYN COLE /LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

LOS ANGELES —With his truck parked waiting for loads, Todd Ellis ambles up to other drivers — especially newcomers — to shoot the breeze and talk shop. He senses their panic.

Uncertainty is rife in these Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, a doorway for a full third of containerized goods coming into the country. The drivers Ellis reaches out to are independent operators who own or lease their trucks, and their fate has been shaken by California’s new AB5 law, which took effect in June and makes it difficult for companies to continue (mis)classifying drivers as independent operators, rather than employees.

What’s unclear, however, is when and how California will enforce AB5, which could affect as many as 70,000 truckers.

The trucking firms say AB5 erases these drivers’ independence and could lower their earnings. Independent drivers are worried they’ll be forced into becoming low-wage employees. They’re reluctant to hear about how becoming a full-time hire and a Teamster changed the life of Ellis and his family: I’ll say, Hey bro, you’ll realize what it is when you can take your kid [to the doctor.]’ ”

Ellis was an oil refinery worker and tank truck and long-haul driver until he wanted to be home for his wife and three daughters. Thinking he could make good money, he became an independent operator and leased a truck from a small trucking outfit. It didn’t work out.

I had to pay for maintenance and fuel and I would have two good weeks and then two bad weeks and I couldn’t get out of the red,” he says. He also got slammed with exorbitant maintenance charges.

Now, as a union trucker, he works five days a week for $29 an hour with an incentive.

A 2017 USA Today investigation confirmed that independent operators suffer inflated fees, wage theft and forced shifts — driving as many as 20 hours straight — at the hands of trucking companies that wield enormous power over an indebted immigrant workforce where many speak little English. According to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) — a nonprofit started with union support — port trucking firms have been cited for more than $60 million in stolen wages and penalties” by state officials and millions in court cases for labor violations.

But many independent operators say they get fairly large checks” — which blinds them to the costs of fuel, equipment, insurance and taxes, without healthcare or pensions, says Mike Muñoz, head of LAANE’s clean and safe port campaign.

Surging fuel prices squeezed them even more, Muñoz says, but worse — they face a demand for lower freight costs, which trucking companies use as an excuse to trim their pay.

While increased shipping volume has showered prosperity on the ports, truckers have not shared in the bounty. Deregulation in 1980 led to the disappearance of union jobs as smaller, nonunion companies rushed in. And the ports banned older trucks, forcing drivers to buy expensive rigs and take on debt, Muñoz says.

If these independent operators don’t get hired full time, they’ll never pay off the loans on their trucks, Ellis suggests. Three out of four drivers today are Latino, and 60% of drivers are the breadwinner in their families, according to a recent survey by LA port officials.

Ellis credits the union for a job that supports his family. Teamsters say their port trucking members earn about $30 an hour, says Eric Tate, secretary treasurer of Local 848. Meanwhile, independent operators earn a modest $20.82 on average, the LAANE study showed, and can earn nothing when business is bad. Yet the drivers Ellis talks to are so mentally anti-union,” he says. They say union people are lazy.”

The lawyers for the California Trucking Association, which has fought AB5 in the courts, say the legal battle is not over. Independent operator drivers’ reaction was more visceral. They demonstrated at ports in Oakland and southern California, tying up traffic for several days in July.

If independent drivers do become employees, many would be working at nonunion firms. But the wave of new employees could offer the Teamsters, who have about 600 port drivers, a fresh opening.

When Ellis quit the independent-operator game and signed with Universal Logistics, a large, Michigan-based firm, his Compton, Calif., shop was nonunion. In 2019, he and his coworkers won an election with Teamsters Local 848. The company fired union backers in retaliation and closed the shop.

But with help from the Teamsters, Ellis was hired at unionized Pacific 9 in nearby Gardena. And in August, Universal reached a settlement with the Teamsters based on 2021 findings by the National Labor Relations Board that the firm violated labor laws. The company has to provide millions in back pay, recognize the union and sign a new contract.

Ellis is compelled to speak out because of what he says the union did for him. He is 54 with a home in Anaheim, Calif.

I’m grateful,” he says, because uncertainty is really scary when you have a large family.”

As he sits in his garage, talking on the phone, getting ready for the half-hour drive to his 5 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. shift, and with a very strong coffee on the way — It’s a great job,” he says.

This piece is part of a series on worker-organizers.

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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

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