Today's Congressional hearings on the sorry state of America's port trucking system drew the traditional battle lines between Democrats and Republicans, business interests and labor/environmental interests—but called with Democrats seeking an investigation.
Held by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructures Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, the hearing pitted witnesses from the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Teamsters on one side, and the American Trucking Association on the other. It ended with the Democratic legislators calling for to further study America's port trucking system, and specifically the abuse of supposed "independent contractors" who regularly work for the same employer, but are classified as owner-operators as a cost-saver.
I'll have a more detailed description of the hearing up tomorrow (gotta catch a train). In the meantime, I'd like to highlight one of the principal opposition arguments to reform, cited today by Representative Gary Miller (R-CA), who used to work as an independent contractor in his younger days. Miller argued independent contractors have a certain freedom, and the federal government shouldn't pass legislation that could potentially impact that freedom. (The legislative fix being considered would empower ports to regulate port trucks operating within their purview, setting environmental and labor standards without fear of lawsuits.) Said Miller:
I was an independent contractor in the building trades. I went into business with myself. How I decided to borrow money from the bank was a decision I made on my own, just as a [port driver] independent contractor makes on his own the decision on whether to enter into a lease to lease a truck, or not… Some people want to be self-employed. Some people want to determine when they want to work, whether they want to take vacations. I remember working seven days a week, from six in the morning until six at night. I did it because I wanted to.
However, Miller ignores the fact that his decision to borrow money from the bank and go into business for himself is contextually different from the choice before port truck drivers. Miller is a white American male, a condition that connotes a certain amount of privilege, in particular a comprehensive command of the English language, a comfortableness with the culture, and, again presumably, reliable community members to tun to for financial advice (parents, mentors, etc. who are presumably also American citizens). Many port truckers are first generation immigrants, from low-income backgrounds. Some of them don't have a fluent command of English. They are easily exploited by unscrupulous employers. Their employers lease them trucks, often times as a condition of employment. Miller states that he decided how many hours to work. Most drivers don't have that privilege, as Jose Covarrubias, a port trucker from LA, testified. Instead, the trucking companies dictate their hours. Within this particular labor market independent contractors don't get the freedom that is supposed to come with the classification "owner-operator".
Which isn't to say there aren't those who want to be independent contractors. I'm sure there are. But I'd also guess that they are a minority. Most human beings would prefer to not work a job where expenses eat up more than half of their income, and their hours stretch into the night with no overtime. As Covarrubias said in his testimony: "We are nothing more than employees with expenses." And I might add, no benefits. Legislators should address the concerns of those who don't want to work under such unjust conditions, not Representative Miller's reflections upon his time in the building trades.