THE BATTLE LINES WERE DRAWN at the Port of Seattle's Terminal 5: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters #174 vs. APL, one of the Port's private terminal operators. Now comes the hard part for the union: winning converts.

The Teamsters established their picket line early on the morning of October 21, with the usual signs and slogans demanding economic justice. Their hope was that the long line of rigs showing up for the day's haul would honor the union and turn around. Union members took turns approaching the independent truckers or "owner-operators," trying to talk each trucker, the majority of whom are non-union, into honoring the picket.

By 7:30 a.m., the score was pretty even, with 21 deciding to honor the picket and head home and 23 proceeding. As the morning wore on, however, the number of trucks breaking the picket line started to greatly outnumber those that turned away. Soon, counting became irrelevant, as a number of drivers came back to the terminal for second and third trips. APL claimed it wasn't affected by the strikes.

It's not surprising that the action wasn't a stunning success. The Teamsters already ran a strike back in August. Union demands were never met.

So the union has changed its strategy -- relying on short-term "guerrilla tactics" like the October 21 picket -- to disrupt, rather than close down, activity at the port.

Judging from the limited success of their first action, however, the Teamsters have some serious questions to answer. Will the new approach work? Do they have enough credibility or traction with the truckers to pull it off? Ultimately, can the Teamsters expect to win anything when they can't rely on their biggest weapon, a sustained strike?

Certainly, few can argue with the righteousness of the Teamsters' cause. The independent owner-operators who work out of the Port of Seattle are arguably the most downtrodden laborers plying Seattle's docks today. A few months ago the union released a study that claimed the following things:

· After they've made all the payments on their truck, the take-home pay of an independent owner-operator is a mere $9 an hour.

· The independent owner-operator works an average of 14 hours in uncompensated overtime per week.

· About 54 percent of these truckers choose to forgo health care rather than incur the cost.

· Trucking companies control the rate that "independent" truckers can charge shipping companies.

The union is demanding that the Port Commission force any trucking company using independent owner-operators to let the drivers join unions. They've demanded that everyone recognize their "Ten Points of Justice," a plan listing all the benefits and rights the union thinks independent truckers deserve, like the right to health insurance.

"I think we have a good chance [of success]," says the wildly optimistic Bob Hasegawa, #174's secretary-treasurer. "It depends on how reasonable the power brokers are. You know, you can only exploit people for so long before they explode." He points out that the local machinists' union joined the strike. Hopefully, other port unions will cooperate in the future, he says.

Union spin aside, the Teamsters' chances for success are up against a few daunting realities.

First of all, non-unionized independent truckers -- like migrant farm workers -- are a tricky constituency to organize. Forty percent of the truckers are immigrants. They roam from terminal to terminal, hauling goods for better pay than they've seen elsewhere. Second, the enemy isn't clearly defined. For example, APL, this month's Teamsters target, is just one company among dozens who may be faulted for not paying attention to the plight of independent owner-operators. Teamsters blame other terminal operators, rail lines, trucking companies, shipping companies, and even the Port Commission.

Back in the trenches, the Teamsters face their most difficult challenge: recruiting more truckers. As evidenced by the October 21 action, the union doesn't have impeccable credibility.

"I've been in 174 for fucking years," said one driver, a weary-looking man in his late 40s. "You tell the union I don't forget. I don't forget. They haven't done anything for me. I'm going through today." Two drivers had pro-union signs on their windows ("I Support Port Truckers!"). They went through, too.

Cynicism is not acceptable in this fight, yet there was evidence of it even among the picketers. "Everything is messed up after the [failed August] strike," said Kidane Thimant, a 32-year-old Eritrean who's been an owner-operator for a year. His comments embroiled him in a heated debate with a fellow picketer. "No, I don't blame the union," Thimant said, "but that strike wasn't very well-organized."

Margaret Levi, director of the Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington, cautions against being too critical of the Teamsters. The movement for the rights of independent owner-operators is still in its infancy. "As an outside observer, I think they have been quite successful," she says. "God, they carried on a strike for two weeks!"

Unfortunately for the workers on the inside, they lost wages and credibility, and they've been forced into a strategy that raises more questions than it answers.

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