The Supply-Chain Crisis Is Creating a Rare Opportunity for Truck Drivers

On the water’s edge of Wando Welch, a shipping terminal covering more than 200 acres in greater Charleston, S.C., I gazed at the towering stacks of cargo aboard the MSC Giulia, a ship that can carry up to 9,400 20-foot-long containers. It arrived the previous afternoon, around the same time as the smaller CMA CGM White Shark — waterborne links in the global supply chain.

Both vessels were being loaded on this bright October morning with new containers held improbably aloft by blue and white cranes steered by dockworkers. In less than two weeks, the Giulia was scheduled to reach the Suez Canal; the White Shark would dock at Algeciras, Spain.

During the 18th century, many of the “goods” handled in Charleston were human: Around 40 percent of the enslaved people brought to North America arrived by ship at Charleston Harbor. This fact is not lost on local dockworkers and truckers today, most of whom are Black. “On the cargo ships coming into the Port of Charleston, people who look like me were the cargo. Now we control the cargo,” Leonard Riley Jr., a union longshoreman and activist, told me.

Across a port road, Charles James, one of Mr. Riley’s colleagues, yelled hello from a flatbed truck carrying containers labeled with the names of major shipping firms: Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and Triton. Behind him was a Rubik’s Cube city of containers, its streets filled with meandering lines of 18-wheel trucks. Rubber-tired gantry cranes, shaped like the mechanical car stackers in Manhattan parking lots, picked up and reordered piles of containers, pulling out the right one and setting it on a truck’s chassis.

Every delay in loading and unloading containers costs independent truckers money.

Moving goods in and out of ports requires an intricate distribution network. Most of us catch occasional glimpses of this system when stopped in traffic by a passing cargo train, driving alongside a container truck or waiting for an Amazon Prime Sprinter van to make a home delivery. None of this, though, would be possible without intermodal trucking.

Intermodal port truckers connect our industrial dots, driving containers from one terminal to another or between rail yards and warehouses. Unlike UPS drivers or dockworkers, however, the vast majority of these local, short-haul drivers are independent contractors who lack the rights of legal employees. As owner-operators, they are paid $50 or $80 or $100 per container load, which means time works against them. The fewer boxes they move, the less pay they take home.

Until 1980, port truckers were generally employees. A shipping company would contract with a trucking fleet to move goods from a port terminal to a warehouse. That fleet would then dispatch an employee. But the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, combined with containerization, upended this system, effectively converting most port drivers into freelancers.

These truckers were no longer eligible for unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation. Nor could they organize with the Teamsters or either of the two dockworkers’ unions: the International Longshoremen’s Association on the East Coast and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast. (A small fraction of port truckers remained hourly employees, called company drivers.)

Port truckers were forced to become small-business people: owner-operators who bought their own trucks and took on all the expenses and risk. Those with poor credit were even more vulnerable, signing leases on trucks. As a 2017 investigation by USA Today found, some of these lessees barely broke even; one man made just 67 cents after a week of work. Trucking was foreclosure on wheels or modern sharecropping.

The shipping industry has long complained of a truck driver shortage, and this is especially true now, during the retail crunch of the Covid pandemic. But this lack of drivers “is actually more an issue of misclassification by the industry and a lack of good jobs,” Kristal Romero, a coordinator for the Teamsters’ port division, told me.

These old conditions have now converged with something new: a global economy remade by the pandemic. Americans are shopping more than ever before. Factories are overwhelmed; raw materials are scarce. According to Charmaine Chua, a logistics scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, just-in-time manufacturing has proved fragile. The nightly news regularly airs footage of container ships queued up along the coasts — yet this is only one sign of trouble in the supply chain.

The South Carolina Ports Authority, which spans three container terminals in and around Charleston, has seen a 19 percent increase in container volume so far this year; the trend holds at other ports across the country. Containers can’t be moved fast enough.

“If you go into the port and you get in the wrong line, you can’t make a U-turn. You’re surrounded by trucks on all sides,” Richard Resek, an owner-operator in New Jersey, told me.

With this has come a jump in turn time, or the measure of how long it takes a trucker to enter a port with one load and exit with another. Every delay comes at great cost to individual drivers. “Taking a box off of you and putting a box on you used to be 17 to 20 minutes; it’s 30 minutes now or an hour or two hours,” Mike Weidenhamer, a trucker in Charleston, told me. “So far this year, my revenue is down 40 percent.”

Port truckers are tired of losing time and money. They are organizing like never before — under the banner of “all hours worked, all hours paid” — to demand recognition and a piece of record revenues in retail and shipping. As the cost to ship containers has more than tripled since last year, why, they ask, do they seem to be the only part of the supply chain earning less, not more?

Charleston is at the center of this activism. Last spring, the crisis of increased turn times led a handful of local drivers to form a quasi-union called Coalition 18 (wheels, that is). They began to meet in person and distribute fliers. They also started a private Facebook group that grew to nearly 500 members within a few months. Some, like Mr. Weidenhamer, were proud owner-operators who consider themselves entrepreneurs; others felt misclassified, independent in name only. (The fight over status continues: The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear a case on whether owner-operators should be considered employees.)

At 4:30 one morning in late October, I followed Juan Gordon, the president of Coalition 18, to his truck yard in North Charleston. It was dark and pouring down rain as he lifted the hood of his white glossy cab. He peered in with a flashlight — he is 6 foot 7 and built like an offensive lineman — to inspect the engine. He circled the vehicle to knock all 18 tires and ensure that the container was solid on the chassis and the chassis well hitched to the cab. He warmed up his engine and said a prayer that invoked “Grace Louise,” the name of his truck and a tribute to his two grandmothers.

Juan Gordon became a trucker four years ago.
A container ship at the Wando Welch Terminal in South Carolina.

Mr. Gordon became a trucker four years ago, after a long career as a car salesman. He had heard about owner-operators and was drawn to the freedom of working the hours and routes he wanted. He started out doing long-haul trips that took him away from his wife and children for up to a week at a time but soon switched to local day shifts, in and out of the terminals, to be closer to home.

In a good year, he could earn $45,000 after expenses (about the national median), and it was much less isolating than the long-haul life. “Coming into the ports, you get a sense of pride, building relationships with people,” he told me.

From the truck yard, Mr. Gordon took the freeway to Wando Welch Terminal. There he idled in a series of lines: to check in and get on the scale, then to unload his box in the right place. The average turn time at Charleston-area ports jumped from 41 minutes in July 2020 to 55 minutes in July 2021, but drivers contest these numbers, pointing to long waits between the security gate and the kiosk to check in. (The South Carolina Ports Authority says that it counts all time spent on terminal property and that an hour per move is standard.)

After Mr. Gordon finished up at Wando Welch, the motor carrier he works for, RTR, dispatched him to the Norfolk Southern rail yard to get another container. The carrier paid him about 75 percent of what it received from Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd or the South Carolina Ports Authority per container. But rates had not kept up with delays caused by congestion. And safety laws limited him to a certain number of hours per day on the road; he couldn’t just work longer to earn more.

A spokesperson for Hapag-Lloyd, which reported $4.2 billion in earnings in the first half of 2021, said that it pays $550 to $750 to have a container moved from one Charleston terminal or rail yard to another. The port truckers I spoke with receive $50 to $100 per trip.

Coalition 18 wants not only to transform this math but also to build solidarity in an all-too individualized business. In late October, I visited Wescott Park in North Charleston for the group’s monthly meeting. Thirty members of Coalition 18, including Mr. Gordon, gathered around concrete picnic tables, drinking soda and paying voluntary dues. Drivers raised their hands to offer dire reports: big drops in income, continued delays and conflicts with dockworkers during traffic jams on the waterfront. Port truckers see every day how much power the International Longshoremen’s Association wields at local terminals, inspiring both reverence and resentment: The union occasionally calls for work slowdowns that can imperil drivers’ pay.

Shauntai Robinson, a petite, fastidious woman who serves as Coalition 18’s vice president, greeted me in warm Southern fashion. She has been a self-employed port trucker for 10 years; before that, she drove a taxi, then a school bus, then a long-haul rig. Her husband is a trucker, too. She urged the assembled drivers to think strategically about their targets. There was the ports authority, yes, but also the motor carriers that were surely getting more from shipping companies while paying truckers the same low rate.

“The core of the issue is the carriers,” she said. “We need to create a model that cuts that middleman. But until then, you can go to your carrier. We have power.”

It is not easy to organize workers in South Carolina, the state with the lowest rate of union membership — and the site of a crushing union defeat at Boeing in 2017. There have been many attempts, and false starts, at trucker organizing over the 40 years since deregulation. Ms. Robinson was part of a group like Coalition 18 about a decade ago, which tried but failed to fight onerous federal and state rules. And two decades ago, the Charleston I.L.A., Local 1422, found a way to bring owner-operators into the union, despite their nonemployee status. A motor carrier agreed to hire unionized truckers in exchange for I.L.A. help in negotiating contracts with shipping companies. The drivers were allowed to keep their own trucks but became employees of the carrier. Unfortunately, the model did not last.

Shauntai Robinson is one of the leaders of Coalition 18.
Port truckers are looking for better working conditions and pay.

Coalition 18 has no fixed idea of what form its organizing should take. Yet Mr. Gordon, Ms. Robinson and the rest of the leadership team have come to represent the interests of hundreds of owner-operators. They have strategized with driver groups around the country through a round-table group called the Truckers Movement for Justice. They persuaded the South Carolina Ports Authority to meet with them to discuss drivers’ concerns and in July led a morning work stoppage that affected the terminals and rail yards.

Partly in response to all this activity, the authority increased the number of troubleshooting yard liaisons (to help truckers find their drop-off and pick-up sites), ordered more chassis (which are in short supply across the country) and hired additional staff members. Drivers say it also raised the pay rate for an in-house trucking program called RapidRail. Liz Crumley, the ports authority spokesperson, told me that “many of these changes were already in the works.”

The South Carolina Ports Authority has seen a 19 percent increase in container volume so far this year.

Coalition 18 cannot act like a traditional union on account of its drivers’ status, so Ms. Robinson and Mr. Gordon have explored the idea of a trucker co-op: a member-led, member-owned carrier. “We want to become organized, not unionized. We want to have representation,” Mr. Gordon said.

Billy Randel, a trucker and labor organizer who coordinates the Truckers Movement for Justice, has also reached out to leaders of the I.L.A. and employment attorneys for support. “Why can’t truck drivers organize? Why can’t they be creative?” Mr. Randel said. Unions are “looking at it just one way: collective bargaining agreements. We’re looking at coops and industry agreements.”

Member groups of the Truckers Movement for Justice, from New Jersey to Los Angeles to New Orleans, have come together to demand grievance procedures and compensation for increased turn times. They continue to meet with port officials and hope, like Coalition 18, to eventually target motor carriers and find ways to negotiate baseline conditions and pay. This might take the form of protests or legislative reform (to classify drivers as employees and expand their right to overtime compensation) or a system of industrywide sectoral bargaining, which the Biden administration has promised to consider.

As Mr. Gordon put it, the pandemic has given truckers unprecedented leverage. “Everyone’s looking at the ports right now,” he said. “This is definitely our time.”

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Sean Rayford is a photographer.

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