Port Truck Drivers Launch First-Contract Negotiations with Clear Message to Australia’s Toll Group: “Fair and Sanitary Working Conditions Are Not Optional in America”
May 25, 2012
Workers’ spirits, determination boosted as ABC’s “Lateline” exposes Toll’s anti-union campaign; Teamster delegation returns to Oz to deepen TWU solidarity
LOS ANGELES – Newly unionized port truck drivers who seized a landslide victory in their historic workplace election launched bargaining with the Melbourne-based Toll Group freshly validated by international media exposure and bolstered by unwavering labor solidarity, but cautioned that management persisted with union busting at its U.S. headquarters in defiance of the LA workers’ 3-1 margin ballot triumph.
The 65 men and women now represented by Teamsters kicked off the May 17 negotiations process just as households across Australia tuned into a primetime in-depth news segment exposing their iconic Oz employer’s unsafe, unjust, and unsanitary practices in the Down Under version of “60 Minutes.” The Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) high-profile current affairs program Lateline provided further damning evidence of the poverty-line pay and brutal anti-union tactics that the now-beleaguered brand has tried to cover up.
The unflinching support by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) remained evident as well. This week, the Australian union is hosting a second delegation of Teamster officials in Sydney to advance joint campaigns to prevent Toll and other supply chain employers like Coles from trampling on safety and workers’ rights.
Despite the momentum, the Southern California unit noted concerns that Toll is extending its mismanagement and costly labor dispute to its U.S. headquarters near the Ports of New York and New Jersey. According to worker exchanges, Toll recently held a mandatory meeting to intimidate Newark-area drivers from seeking job improvements.
Jose Ortega Jr., an elected bargaining committee member who granted ABC an interview, said that he and his co-workers were fighting to end Toll’s union-busting and that they would keep speaking out so that the community and company investors would also pressure their employer to treat all port truck drivers with dignity and respect.
“Me and my co-workers are the reason our company grows and succeeds in the U.S. because we are the professionals who safely deliver sports and clothing imports in a timely fashion for our customers,” said Mr. Ortega, a single father who hauls major American brands like Guess?. “But Toll doesn’t value our middle-class work; truck drivers here are not even worth minimum wage in their minds. It’s crazy to have to sit across the table from your competitive, unionized Australian employer just to achieve a clean, safe and sanitary work environment in the United States of America.”
Leaders at the TWU, which holds a strong master contract for its 12,000 members, also expressed concern that a Melbourne-based executive named Andrew Ethell was directing U.S. management to behave unscrupulously, and that their inhumane treatment would erode standards Down Under.
“We’ve seen what Toll is capable of, which is shocking to most Australians and shareholders alike who believe in the values of a ‘fair go.’ We’re not resting on our laurels and intend to act in solidarity with our U.S. workmates every step of the way to ensure that Toll prioritizes safety and recognizes the union and workplace rights wherever it operates,” said Michael Aird, TWU’s Assistant Secretary who led a fact-finding delegation of Toll workplace leaders to California this Spring.
Mr. Aird pointed to new evidence of the egregious scope of Toll’s behavior: Recent U.S. Department of Labor filings demonstrate that the company paid one of its anti-union consultants $172,000 for a few months’ worth of salary and expenses in 2011 to pressure and persuade LA employees from joining the union during their work shifts. ABC’s Lateline reported that Mr. Ortega earned peanuts in comparison, $23,773, according to last year’s tax return filing.
“These people work hard to give their children a better life and are a vital part of this Australian corporation’s U.S. expansion strategy – they deserve to feel proud of what they do to keep America’s economy moving,” said Fred Potter, Teamsters vice president and the drivers’ top representative at the bargaining table. “Instead of wasting all this money on more failed, low-road attempts to demoralize and divide these workers, management would be well advised to invest its money in the workforce they rely on to help them succeed, and partner with the unions if they hope to repair their battered image in the community and restore standing in both continents.
After it was revealed Toll failed to even provide its U.S. workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach clean indoor bathrooms, their campaign against their employees escalated, earning condemnation by an international coalition of supporters.
The unusually public struggle has played out in the media on both sides of the Pacific, giving the world a glimpse of Toll’s unscrupulous tactics aimed at making worker abuse the norm at its operations in America and undermining Australia’s values of a fair go.
“They treat you like dirt, you know. They don’t have no heart…dirty toilets, we don’t have running water,” Alberto Quinteno told Lateline. The veteran truck driver was sacked last October after attending Toll’s annual general meeting in Melbourne.
Toll’s highly-publicized firing spree has become part and parcel for Toll’s strategy masterminded by Mr. Ethell and range from “coincidentally” laying-off 26 drivers the day after the group wore Teamster shirts to the pre-election sackings of a pair of outspoken pro-union supporters on the heels of the TWU solidarity visits.
Mr. Quiteno and several co-workers utilized public pressure and enlisted political support to help win their jobs back since retaliatory firings can be difficult to prove from an evidentiary standpoint at the nation’s top labor enforcement agency. However, despite weak U.S. labor laws, the NLRB has issued a formal set of complaints against Toll for violating federal law; the company will soon be held to account for its illegal coercion, threats, surveillance, and harassment of its own employees by a U.S. judge.