Container Truck Drivers' Strike in Vancouver:
Workers fight for conditions against capitalist deregulation. An interview with Sukdev Lehl, Truck driver, striker and independent owner-operator
By Ivan Drury
On the afternoon of Friday June 24th a thousand independent owner-operator container truck drivers went on strike. Organized under the Vancouver Container Truck Association (VCTA), the drivers effectively froze transport out of every port in Greater Vancouver.
The strike comes amidst a string of strikes and job actions by truck drivers against wages lowered by rising costs dumped upon them by the bosses. In April, drivers in the Lower Mainland formed a 16 km long protest of trucks that froze traffic and in June, a two week strike of more than 1,200 gravel truck drivers shook business in the Lower Mainland. The gravel truck drivers strike ended in a 12% concession from the companies and gave a sign to other truckers that strike action was necessary to combat attacks on workers by bosses seeking raising profits in a sinking economy.
Twenty years ago trucking was generally considered well paid work. With the economic crisis of the beginning of the 1990’s, the trucking bosses began to move actively on “cutting costs”. In order to lay an effective assault upon the workers, the capitalist bosses along with the government, began a deregulation drive to flood the industry with workers and break unions. Deregulation of the trucking industry began with the re-writing of the Motor Vehicle Transport Act of 1987 when regulations for inter-province trucking were reduced to only licensing and insurance and was continued through the last 20 years on an international level. The effect of deregulation was that unemployment amongst truckers rose by 20% in three years following the deregulation, and then, in 1996, after employment numbers began to climb again, wages continued to fall. Today the average wage of a truck driver is less than $15 an hour.
Independent owner-operators have fared the worst in the attacks by the bosses. As individual drivers contracted out by “middle-men” contractors, independent owner-operators have a much harder time in the fight for wages and conditions than union truckers. Independent owner-operators have borne the brunt of the attacks from capitalists seeking to profit off of economic crisis, and their conditions have been made worse by rising costs that the contractors have also stuck them with managing without reflecting these costs in raising wages. The result has been that their real wages have fallen so low that many of them lose money by going to work.
Independent owner-operators have organized themselves into the VCTA and have frozen transport out of the Vancouver Ports, demanding recognition of their association by the ports, improved wages and improved conditions. In an important development, on Thursday June 30th a labour mediator was appointed to resolve the strike. The truckers strike serves as a lesson to all workers in BC; although they are exploited by capitalist contractors, these same contractors and the companies behind them depend on the exploited labour of the truckers to make money. The government and media cry about $30Million lost every day that the truckers strike, but these same bosses have been forced to negotiate with the VCTA because the truckers have organized and fought back.
Fire This Time encourages all working and poor people to stand with the VCTA truckers for victory in their struggle and against the capitalist deregulation of the rights of all workers.
On June 29th Fire This Time went down to the Vancouver Ports and visited the VCTA strike. We interviewed Sukdev Lehl, an independent owner-operator and organizer, to find out what conditions lie behind this strike and what the truckers are fighting for.
Fire This Time: Can you explain to me why you are on strike?
SL:We can’t maintain our trucks, you know… we are working 10 to 12 hours a day and we’re hardly breaking even. How long can you do that? You know? We have families at home and we have other needs also. In a country like Canada there are standards set and right now we are below the set standards.
The basic demands are around healthcare and safety issues. Our trucks are not in good condition because we are not being paid enough, we are being paid no money. We are the lowest paid in this industry and right now we cannot even break even. If you can’t break even and you can’t make a living then it’s better to park your truck and ask for your rights. We are fighting for our rights here and we are asking for more money plus a fuel charge on top.
FTT: How is the strike going?
SL: So far so good. We’re keeping going as we planned. We’re not shutting anything off; we’re informing the truckers that come through. We convince the drivers… if the driver is mad then we hold him first and then talk to him. If he’s uninformed then we talk to him and tell him the whole thing, how we’re underpaid, how nobody is behind our backs and how everybody else in the industry makes money but not the truckers.
Nobody else cries; the shipping line don’t cry, the ports don’t cry, the trucking company doesn’t cry, why the owner-operators cry is not because the money is not there, the money is there, but someone else is getting it.
We have the support of all people. We even have the support of the shipping company because they are paying what we are supposed to get. They pay the trucking companies and we are supposed to get 70% of the whole and the trucking company is supposed to get 30%, but they pay us 70% of what? Of unknown… because we don’t know how much they get. We have no choice but to find out. It’s better that we tell them what we want and how much they charge is their business, not 70/30 – 70% of what? If they charge $400 and give us $65 of $70, they say that’s 70%. There’s a lot of cheating, if this keeps on going it’s trust that we lose between owner-operators and the companies.
FTT: What solution do you see to the problems that you face of wages and conditions?
SL:Because we’re not organized, they beat us separately. VCTA must be recognized by the port. I want to see VCTA haul for the ports, truckers hired through the VCTA in a way that we can control, and we can control the rates also.
We are learning. If this strike doesn’t work then something bigger will work.
FTT: Thank-you for your time and good luck in your fight for justice.
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