BOB EHRLER WAS STANDING NEXT to his rig during a rowdy union demonstration at Pier 46 last month, when a manager got in his face and started screaming. "He had his finger about an inch from my face," says Ehrler. "He almost hit me. He told me I could never come back onto the pier."

The next day Ehrler was fired.

The story of the union's fight to win Ehrler's job back says a lot about the volatile labor dynamics on Seattle's industrial waterfront. Ehrler's union, the Teamsters, joined with the powerful International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) to force Ehrler's boss to take him back, or else. It was a big reminder of the power of a unified picket line.

On Wednesday June 23, Ehrler and other pro-union truck drivers staged a waterfront rally, completely shutting down Pier 46, a major freight-shipping port just west of the Kingdome. The truckers stopped their rigs and blocked the four-lane entrance to the pier for 45 minutes. The action was intended to pressure four different trucking companies who haul freight out of the port to recognize their union drivers and bargain with them collectively.

The majority of truckers working for MacMillan Piper, Elliott Bay, Conex, and United Motor Freight (four companies among more than a dozen that transport goods shipped into Pier 46) are dues-paying members of Teamsters Local 174. But from the companies' point of view, these truckers aren't union employees. In fact, they're not even employees. They're contractors.

Because the truckers own their own rigs, they are considered self-employed contractors, even though their schedules and routes are controlled by the companies. Bottom line: The truckers receive no hourly wages, no unemployment insurance, no pay for the many hours spent waiting in line at the piers, no health insurance, and no Labor and Industry (L&I) insurance. The company covers insurance for the trucks, but not for the drivers.

Like other permatemp workers, the 1,000 or so "short-haul" owner-operator truckers who run freight between the Port of Seattle and local distribution centers get crummy benefits and are unable to negotiate as a team with their bosses. Unlike permatemps at Microsoft, however, they're hardly raking in enough dough to keep pace with Seattle's booming cost of living.

Thanks to the trucker protest, a pier that is normally the site of steady offloading of Asian freight ships came to a standstill.

The next day, Hanjin, the Korean multinational shipping company that controls Pier 46, banned the four truckers who blocked the entrance to the pier from entering the pier in the future. The company Ehrler works for, Elliott Bay Trucking--which pays Hanjin a fee for shipping access to the pier--fired him.

"We anticipated that there would be retribution," says Teamster organizer Rob Hickey, "and there was."

The morning after Ehrler was fired, labor organizers from the Teamsters met with the company that runs the pier for Hanjin, TTI. The Teamsters were joined by reps from the ILWU, which carries some serious weight down on the waterfront. The organizers managed to convince the pier managers to lift the ban on the four activist drivers who demonstrated against the trucking companies, but Elliott Bay refused to give Ehrler his job back.

In response, the union staged another demonstration on Friday, threatening to shut down the pier once more. All of the Elliott Bay trucks coming into Pier 46 were picketed. Finally, the longshoremen informed Elliott Bay that none of the company's trucks would be serviced until the labor dispute was worked out. In other words, hire back Ehrler or take a hike.

Ehrler got his job back that afternoon around 4:00. "We won, big time," says Ehrler. "We needed something to get us together so we can fight these guys. One guy doesn't stand a chance against these companies. All I wanted to do was get back to work and show these people that you can get fired and the union will get you your job back. It sent a big message that the union can take care of you. It made a big dent in people's heads."

It's unclear how much money the brief shutdown cost the pier, or where exactly the decision to fire Ehrler originated from. Neither Hanjin, TTI, or Elliott Bay would comment for this article.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the waterfront action was the level of cooperation between the longshoremen and the Teamsters. That type of unity could pose a serious threat to the shipping industry's quiet domination of the Elliott Bay waterfront -- a huge and often overlooked part of Seattle's economy. By backing up the Teamsters at a key time in their campaign for the truckers, the longshoremen sent a serious message to the shipping companies. They also did the truckers a favor that might be returned soon, as the longshoremen's contract negotiations heat up this summer.

"We're not in a position where we can shut down the entire waterfront," says Teamster organizer Hickey. "But we're getting there."

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