High-Tech Transportation Workers

By David Bacon

 

Sabrina Giles went to work seven years ago, keeping track of huge shipping containers moving in and out of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) yard in Point Richmond, California. Over the years, she trained one worker after another in the difficult art of tracking the million-dollar cargoes shipped by giant corporations--C&H Sugar, United Parcel Service, even the U.S. Post Office.

But while others moved up to better jobs and higher pay, she stayed in one place, watching her wages inch slowly from $8 to $9.50 an hour. The people she saw moving ahead were mostly white, she says, usually friends or relatives of supervisors. To Giles, an African American woman, "this yard was full of favoritism, racism, and sexism."

Lorena Sagastume, also employed for over seven years at the facility, started out in the company office. "But then they told me that I had to go work outside in the yard, that they didn't want me talking to their customers because I spoke with an accent," she says.

Last fall, complaints like these led the yard's workers to organize a union. And for the first time since the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, the Bay Area's longshore union agreed to expand its ranks to welcome a new bargaining unit of people who don't work on the docks. "We're trying to adjust to the new reality that if unions don't organize, we won't survive," says Larry Thibeaux, past president of Longshore Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

But instead of winning better conditions, today most of the Pt. Richmond facility's 101 workers are sitting at home. They've come up against what seems to be a new unwritten law--companies running the newest side of the shipping business are determined to do so "union-free."

Railroads and shipping companies have only built terminals like the one in Pt. Richmond in the last 15 years. Called intermodal yards, they're the high-tech heart of the transportation industry, and are located near the docks, where huge cranes load and unload shipping containers from giant freighters. From the ship, containers are trucked to the yards, where they're put on trains moving out across the country.

Although dockworkers are organized, as are crews on the trains, unions are scarce in vast hubs in between. These days, that's where the jobs are. Although the Pt. Richmond workers load and unload shipping containers from Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains, in a yard owned by the company, they don't actually work for the railroad. Instead, the BNSF yard was operated by a contractor, Pacific Rail Services (PRS), which runs 29 other terminals under similar arrangements.

When Giles, Sagastume, and their coworkers filed a petition for a union election, Pacific Rail began saying the railroad would cancel its contract if the union won. Robert Kirchgessner, area manager for PRS, wrote workers a memo on August 28, in which he said that "a new contractor doesn't have to hire any of the previous employees." He then went on to cite recent examples of intermodal yards where hundreds of union workers lost their jobs when the railroads brought in non-union contractors.

Ken Rader, a young white supervisor, recalls that Kirchgessner called him into his office a week before the September 26 election. "He told me that if the union won, I wouldn't have a job," he says. "Bob told me he wanted me to convince people not to vote for the union." PRS representatives refused to be interviewed.

A day before the election, Sagastume was fired. "They said my attendance was bad, but it was no worse than many, and better than some," she says. "I think the company used me to send a message." Anthony Gonzalez says that the mechanics who repaired company equipment were told they would be deported if they supported the union.

Nevertheless, workers voted for the union, 47 to 30.

Afterwards, the company agreed to begin negotiations, and by January had settled a new contract with Local 10. The union and the yard's 101 workers thought their bitter experiences were safely behind them. In fact, the worst was yet to come.

When Pacific Rail went to the railroad with the union agreement in hand, asking for more money to pay wage increases, BNSF dumped them, and on March 10, the yard's 101 workers were terminated permanently. PRS had lost the contract to run the yard. BNSF spokesperson Jim Saborin called it "very much an economic decision. Their bid was way out of line with the market, and what we're paying at other facilities. Our concern is operating the facilities at an economic rate--the best service at the best rate."

To replace PRS, BNSF brought in another company, Parsec, which operates 50 terminals nationwide. Saborin says that Parsec was the second lowest bidder for the Pt. Richmond contract.

Parsec then informed workers they could apply for their old jobs again, but as new employees. Only 26 people were allowed to return. "They handpicked the docile ones," Giles says. "I was replaced by a white woman who had only worked there a year." Rader says he was offered a job too, but as a regular worker at $8.00/hour, not his old $12.00/hour supervisor slot. According to Thibeaux, tractor driver wages have been lowered from $14.40 to $8.50.

Parsec, a $91 million operation, has a long history of battling militant unions like the Teamsters. When it took over BNSF's intermodal yard in Los Angeles, the world's largest, in 1995, the company fired all the yard's 400 workers, who were all Teamster members. Parsec spent $2.5 million hiring, training, and paying the travel and living expenses of a whole new workforce.

Last year, BNSF gave Parsec the contract to operate its Seattle terminal, with no bidding. Parsec again dumped the yard's Teamster workers, and hired new employees at $8.50 an hour.

Parsec doesn't fight all unions, however. In fact, it has a union of its own.

Bruce Jackson, a fired worker still in contact with some of those who were rehired, says they were given a letter from Parsec president Otto M. Buddig, Jr., which required them to join Local 707 of the Truck Drivers, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers Union. That union is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO, and other unions call it a company union. The letter is dated February 6, 1996. Parsec would not confirm whether the letter is routinely handed out to all new employees, or at which facilities.

If Local 707 has a union agreement with Parsec which allows the company to pay wages of $8.00 or $8.50/hour, it would clearly give the company an economic advantage over its competitors. Such an agreement would also protect Parsec from the efforts of its intermodal workers to organize with other unions to raise wages, while providing substantial dues income to Local 707.

Buddig's letter explains to workers that "we are responsible for collecting--on the Union's behalf--an initiation fee of $100 and dues of $26 per month." He then explains to employees that "it is our policy to 'loan' the initiation fee to you," and offers to deduct payments of $25/week until the loan is repaid.

Parsec is not the only contractor which eliminates militant unions from BNSF yards. The railroad recently hired another contractor, In Terminal Services, to take over its Birmingham yard, firing workers who had joined the Transportation Communications Union. Saborin denies that BNSF is an anti-union company, and says that 60 percent of the workforce in its intermodal yards belongs to unions. He couldn't say, however, how much of that 60 percent is represented by Local 707.

According to industry observers, all the railroad companies make a practice of switching contractors in their intermodal yards to encourage bidding wars. Ray Famolathe, who helped organize a union among workers at Southern Pacific's huge Intermodal Container Freight Systems yard in Los Angeles, lost his job when the railroad ended its contract with In Terminal Services. Many ICTF workers then went to work for the same contractor in the BNSF yard, under a Teamsters contract. When BNSF gave the contract to Parsec, they lost their jobs again.

"There are hardly any union rail yards anymore," Famolathe says. "The railroads change the contractors who run their yards every five to seven years as a matter of course. This keeps them bidding against each other, and knocks the price down. When a union gets eliminated in the process, it can't strike because its members are employed by the contractor, not the railroad."

ILWU organizing director Peter Olney notes that "if the railroad was the formal employer of intermodal workers, they would fall under the Railway Labor Act, and become part of a national bargaining unit, and probably members of the railroad unions. By contracting out the work, the railroads keep this from happening. And by switching contracts, they keep other unions from organizing them as well."

While a growing number of unions, like those for janitors and hospital workers, are familiar with the kind of scorched-earth tactics which rocked the Point Richmond union drive, Local 10 is just having its eyes opened, Thibeaux says. The union has taken the first steps to get community support, going to the Richmond City Council and local churches. "But our members really don't understand how these people here lost their jobs," he explains. It hasn't been part of the longshore experience for decades.

"We have to learn from these problems, and support the workers here who have risked their jobs for our union," he concludes. That learning process may have to be quick. Next March or April, BNSF is opening a new, larger yard in the Port of Oakland. It too may be operated by a contractor. If events follow the present pattern, any effort by the workers there to join a union may become as much a war as the one underway in Pt. Richmond.

"The union has to accept the challenge of organizing the intermodal yards," Olney says, "regardless of who the formal employer is. And to do that, we have to take on the railroads--they're the real power."