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Wheel Man: Interview With a Striking Port Truck Driver




Byron Contreras, center.

Byron Contreras has seen almost everything in his 15 years as a truck driver, but there’s one thing he’s still looking for – respect.

That word comes up repeatedly in a conversation with Contreras, an employee of Green Fleet Systems who, along with 120 other drivers, walked off the job Monday, slowing down operations at the nation’s largest port complex. The drivers and a small army of supporters have been picketing the yards of Green Fleet, Total Transportation Services Inc. and Pacific 9 Transportation, as well as marine terminals at the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

The strike – the fourth one in the last year involving local port truck drivers – comes as the port trucking industry continues to reel from a string of devastating decisions by courts and government agencies. These rulings have confirmed what critics have been saying for years – that the mistreatment of truck drivers is not only immoral, but illegal.

Contreras, the father of three kids ranging in age from seven to 21, spoke to Capital & Main about why he and his fellow drivers are risking their jobs.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

It’s really tough because we get stuck for a long time in our trucks — it can take three, four, five hours to pull up and unload from the ports. And every time we get in the truck we are risking our lives, especially if the truck isn’t being properly maintained.

What do you love about your job?

There is nothing like the feeling of providing for your family. I like what I do but I want to be compensated for it. The companies don‘t like it when you decide to take a stand and fight for your rights.

What do you think about when you are on the picket line?

I feel we are kind of like pioneers in this fight. There will be generations behind us, they will see the work we have done. We are trying to revolutionize the whole industry because the companies have been taking advantage of people like us. We just want to be treated like human beings, like the hard-working people that we are. Without the drivers there is no such thing as Walmart or Skechers, because we move everything for them. We are professional drivers, we should be treated like professionals.

What is your worst fear about striking?

Getting fired, because I have family that I need to support. When we started organizing I thought about it, but at the end of the day it’s worth it because I am fighting for something I truly believe in.

What would you say to the owner if you could sit down with him face to face?

We had a meeting with the union buster [hired by the company]. He said if you were talking to the president of the company what would you say. I told him I would say, “I know the company is expanding and doing pretty good.” I would tell him to be very grateful to the employees because they are working hard and taking his business to a higher level.

How do you explain to your seven-year-old why you are on strike?

I talked to him and explained that we are not working. I told him that Dad is on strike for a better future for the whole family. He just smiles at me but I know that he understands when I tell him I am out there on strike fighting for my rights and my co-workers.

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