Weeks after a group of harbor truck drivers voted to unionize, they opened their mailboxes to find layoff notices from their employer. The letter was a violation of federal labor law, a judge ruled on Tuesday in a ruling that will reinstate drivers fired with back wages and interest.
The drivers worked for Universal Intermodal, a subsidiary of Universal Logistics Holdings, which operates several companies that transport freight containers and goods passing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. They are among the busiest ports in the Western Hemisphere, especially in recent weeks with a massive supply chain bottleneck causing traffic jams at the Port of LA. The group of about 30 drivers voted to join a local of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Administrative law judge Michael A. Rosas found in his ruling that the company violated federal labor law in several ways. He said the company illegally interrogated and fired two employees leading union efforts and once workers at the facility organized, they cut their hours, shut down the Compton facility where many of them were working and fired unionized workers in order to punish them for organizing.
The company laid off about 70 employees in total from the Compton and Fontana facilities, including workers employed by its subsidiaries Roadrunner and Universal Trucking.
Rosas noted in its decision that the company had dismissed these other workers to suppress future union activities by getting rid of “all the salaried drivers who were or could be contaminated by the union”, then by continuing its plan to hire new workers. new “uncorrupted”. the drivers employed a few days after the dismissal, ”wrote the judge.
“Justice Rosas made it clear today that the Universal group of companies broke the law at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in a blatant effort to violate the fundamental right of employees to form a union,” said Ron Herrera, director of the Teamsters harbor division, said in a statement. “We cannot allow any business, no matter how small, to ignore the law, especially as drivers work tirelessly to fill the backlog in ports and provide our community with the goods they need. during the holiday season. ”
Universal Logistics Holdings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Universal Logistics ‘labor attorney John Ferrer disputed the allegation that the company shut down the Compton facility in response to union activity, writing in a letter mentioned in Rosas’ decision that it had made the decision to close the facility and to lay off the port drivers before the union’s accreditation for “legitimate business reasons”.
“Labor costs were not a factor in the decision to close the terminal,” Ferrer wrote.
Richard Tatge worked for Universal Logistics at its Fontana site for almost two years. The San Bernardino resident connected with the Teamsters in August 2019 and started organizing his colleagues.
At first he had few complaints with the job, Tatge said in an interview in March. But the more he worked, the more he worried about the precariousness of his position. Grievances have piled up. Tatge worked 10 to 14 hours a day, the cost of medical insurance took a big chunk out of his salary, and the company did not cover basic truck maintenance. Tatge said turnover among supervisors was high, making it difficult for them to follow and resolve issues raised by drivers.
“It was kind of like, ‘If you can’t handle the job, you have to go,’” Tatge said. “We saw this happen and we knew we didn’t have a lot of security in this job.”
Workers voted to unionize on December 4, 2019. Two days later, the company decided to close its Compton plant. The drivers’ workload was reduced and soon after they received layoff notices.
The workloads of the licensed drivers have been shifted to contracted truckers, also known as “owner-operators”. In late December 2019, the company called for applications for harbor driver positions at a facility located just four miles north of the Compton facility. The company did not offer those positions to the laid-off workers, according to the ruling.
Company and union representatives discussed a potential settlement of the unfair labor practices accusations, but those discussions collapsed. At one point, the company’s director of labor and contractual relations, Michael Vagts, sent a laid-off worker seeking reimbursement for certain gasoline expenses a check for $ 250 along with a “settlement agreement.” confidential and a general discharge ”signed. The check stub indicated that the payment was for a National Labor Relations Board settlement. The worker did not sign the agreement or cash the check.
A Teamsters organizer wrote to Vagts asking them to cease and desist from directly engaging with workers on a settlement agreement. “Not only does this settlement agreement contain illegal provisions, but the attempt to require (a worker) to give up their wide range of rights for $ 250 is shameful,” the organizer wrote. Signing such an agreement would have waived the worker’s right to more than seven months of back pay, the judge noted.
Rosas’ decision requires Universal Logistics to recognize the union within two weeks as the bargaining representative of all full-time and part-time port drivers working or seconded from the company’s facilities in Compton. Universal Logistics is also required to “negotiate in good faith with the union regarding wages, hours and working conditions, and if an agreement is reached with the union, sign a document containing that agreement”.
The NLRB first accused Universal Logistics in March of about 20 violations of federal labor law. The case was tried remotely via Zoom video conference in June.
State lawmakers and labor advocates have sought to strengthen protections for truckers – who are often classified as independent contractors and therefore ineligible for basic labor protections, such as the ability to collectively bargain wages – and to crack down on workers. misclassification of drivers. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 338, drafted by State Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), which aims to hold retailers accountable when contracting with trucking companies that have repeatedly misclassified drivers.
Although workers at Universal Logistics have sought to join the Teamsters for more comprehensive protections, another freight company, XPO Logistics, has petitioned for a vote administered by the NLRB to remove Teamsters representation from the venue. of work. Teamsters officials voluntarily stepped down on Wednesday rather than going ahead with the vote, according to a press release from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which provided free legal assistance to the petitioners.