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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Truckers occupy California’s third largest port in protest of contractor law

Opposition to Assembly Bill 5 led to a supply chain halt, with thousands of drivers refusing to work at one of the state's critical ports this week.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Independent truckers have picketed at the Port of Oakland for a full week, in protest of a state law they say would restrict them from self-employed work in the state of California.

Thousands of drivers have gathered for days at the state's third largest port — the eighth largest in the country — protesting Assembly Bill 5, which they say will force them to set up their own corporations or become employees of trucking and cargo companies.

They say Governor Gavin Newsom has been silent since the protests began Monday.

About 500 attended Friday's demonstration. The three main terminals — Oakland International Container Terminal, also known as SSA, TraPac and Everport — have closed operations for both shifts. 

About 500 drivers gathered at Port of Oakland in California to protest a state law defining how independent contractors can conduct business, which may require them to become employees at cargo companies. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

Rajinder Singh, an independent driver for almost 22 years, said most of the protesters live in the San Francisco Bay Area or in the Sacramento Valley, and some chose to stay home from work rather than protest.

He said the Port of Oakland told them “it’s our choice to protest.”

“The governor has to make a decision,” Singh said. “He’s the only person who can put AB 5 on hold, or cancel.” He said they have not heard from Oakland city officials or other local officials.

Many independent drivers are immigrants from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India and other countries. seeking political asylum and freedom from authoritarian governments, according to independent owner and operator Able Zerfiel. He said self-employment is how they support their families, and they fear losing money if they are required to drive for one company — or if companies won’t hire them during a recession. 

“I make more money than being a driver, for the same work,” he said. 

About 500 drivers gathered at Port of Oakland in California to protest a state law defining how independent contractors can conduct business, which may require them to become employees at cargo companies, in July 2022. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

An 2019 court injunction kept AB 5 from taking effect, which was later reversed by the Ninth Circuit. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Ninth Circuit's ruling, paving the way for AB 5 to take effect.

“They are coming at the wrong time in our economic state to enforce it," Zerfiel said. “Being at the mercy of the company owners that hire us as drivers, we do not want that,” Zerfiel said. 

He added that with the current state of the economy, all the drivers forced out of independent contracting may not be hired.

“They may not have the trucks,” he said. “They do not guarantee employment. And with the recession approaching, they’re going to lay us off and we’re going to be unemployed because of recession anyway.”

The “independent contractor rules” bill AB 5 was signed into law by Governor Newsom in 2019. It requires the application of the “ABC test” to determine if workers in California are employees or independent contractors. The test considers if a worker is free from control of their employer, performs work outside of the business and engage in an independently established trade.

The law also affects millions of freelance workers like writers, translators, artists and consultants.

Truckers say they hope to make a statement by shutting down cargo movement at the port, which moves about 10,000 containers every day. Long delays in movement for import and export containers mean further halting of the supply chain.

FreightWaves reported that Roberto Bernardo, director of communications for the Port of Oakland, confirmed protests “have effectively shut down operations at shipping terminals at the Port of Oakland.”

Bernardo did not respond to a request for comment.

Port Director Danny Wan released a letter to the protesting truckers saying he met with representatives to discuss operations resuming as quickly as possible, as the supply chain was already congested before this week. 

“Disruptions in truck movements and moving cargo drive customers away and prompt them to consider taking their business to ports outside California," Wan wrote. "We do not want to see the loss of business and jobs here.”

He said port representatives are meeting with state officials and provided a statement from the governor’s office: “The state will continue to partner with truckers and the ports to ensure the continued movement of goods to California’s residents and businesses, which is critical to all of us.”

Wan said while protesters have the First Amendment right to demonstrate peacefully, they must follow rules for where they gather.

"We respectfully ask that each independent owner/operator cease any further protest activity that disrupts port operations and the flow of commerce at the seaport," Wan wrote.

Bobby Olvera Jr., vice president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, issued his support for the union’s position on AB 5. 

“The ILWU believes collective bargaining is fundamental to workplace fairness and safety, as well as a foundation of democratic society,” said Olvera in a statement. “That’s why we support AB 5: It aims to stop employers from misclassifying workers in order to stop these workers from forming unions and improving their lives.”

About 500 drivers gathered at Port of Oakland in California to protest a state law defining how independent contractors can work, saying they do not want to be employed and potentially earn less money as drivers. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

Zerfiel said the protest will continue next week — with no plans to protest at the Capitol yet — if there is no response from Newsom.

“If they're ignoring our rights, it’s going to have to keep going because either way we’re going to stay out of work,” he said. “I would think the governor would be interested in moving the supply chain. We move 70% of the supply chain.”

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