Hundreds of West Coast Truckers Are Fighting for a Union

Hundreds of Southern California port truckers have launched a unionization bid to fight their increasingly brutal working conditions. It’s an industry where worker misclassification is rampant and employers flout labor laws with impunity.

Teamsters have filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election to be held by 250 XPO Logistics port truckers in California. (Paul Weaver / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On January 19, the Teamsters filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election to be held by some two hundred fifty port truckers who drive for XPO Logistics, a global logistics powerhouse with more than a hundred thousand employees around the world.

In filing for an election, XPO port truckers are contesting their status as independent contractors. The move is part of a broader campaign against misclassification in the trucking industry, which has shifted toward nonunion and independent contractor models in the decades of deregulation that followed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The Teamsters have been waging the fight against XPO for years, and represent the company’s East Coast freight drivers, who are classified as employees. By contrast, independent contractors cannot unionize in the United States, and are excluded from job protections such as minimum-wage and antidiscrimination laws.

XPO port truckers haul goods at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the point of entry for some 40 percent of shipping containers imported to the United States. A key link in the supply chain, these drivers have seen conditions worsen with supply chain snarls.

“When companies rely on a misclassified workforce, it’s a lot harder to track,” explains Kristal Romero, the Teamsters’ Port Division coordinator. “One of the main issues that we saw with the cargo backups was a huge increase in wait times. A lot of these hours go unpaid for drivers and during that time, drivers are without access to restrooms or food or water. We would see some drivers just give up and go home because there weren’t enough chassis. The reliance on misclassification has absolutely eroded the supply chain and has allowed for these sorts of backups to occur.”

The Biden administration’s NLRB appointees have signaled a greater openness than their Trump-appointed counterparts to taking on the issue of misclassification, which plagues a large and growing number of workers across the country as employers seek to shift the costs and risk of employment onto workers themselves by classifying them as contractors. Moving forward with the union filing, board officials will weigh whether XPO’s control over the conditions of the truckers’ work is sufficient to qualify as a traditional employer-employee relationship.

Truckers say there is no question that XPO has such control over their labor. As driver Domingo Avalos told Bloomberg, “XPO has 100% control over our work — XPO tells us what time we start, where we go… We have to check in with them hourly.”

In the case of port trucking, misclassification is one of many strains for workers. A USA Today investigation found that some port truckers find themselves in debt peonage as a result of truck-leasing programs that leave them indentured to their employer and forced to drive beyond the legal limit of hours. While many of the drivers in the XPO port-trucker union own their trucks, they don’t lack for reasons to organize.

“These drivers are denied access to employee-sponsored health insurance because they’re erroneously classified as independent contractors and the company says that they’re not entitled to that,” says Romero. The result is that when drivers get sick, they keep working, and do not seek treatment. During the pandemic, independent contractor status brought additional costs for drivers as XPO did not provide the truckers with the personal protective equipment (PPE) required to do their jobs.

The XPO drivers have firm precedents for arguing that they are employees. In 2021, XPO agreed to pay $30 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by port truckers who alleged that they were paid below minimum wage — some of the drivers involved in that case are in the proposed bargaining unit. While the settlement does not require XPO to reclassify the drivers, the Teamsters see it as a recognition that they are employees, covered by employment protections.

“We know these drivers are employees of XPO logistics,” says Romero. “The real question is: Why is a multibillion-dollar company continuing to break the law with impunity?”