By Mike Lindblom, April 1, 2013, Seattle Times
Short-haul truckers at the Port of Seattle have learned not to expect high wages, as theirs is a low place in the global supply chain.
But over at Terminal 30, they are asking at least for a better place to relieve themselves and wash their hands.
While longshore workers at the terminal can use a restroom in a dockside office building, short-haul truckers have been told to leave and, in a couple cases, have told police they were physically blocked.
Officials from the Port and terminal operators say the truckers should use the two portable toilets provided near the terminal exit, so they aren’t walking or parking amid dangerous traffic and equipment near the loading area.
Trucker Tesfaghaber Berhane, 55, says he was pushed out of the restroom one day last June. T he native of Eritrea says port-a-potties are inadequate because drivers want to wash their hands with running water before eating or prayer. “We are human beings; we have to be clean, that is the minimum requirement for human beings,” Berhane said.
Cam Williams, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 19, said that if truckers stop and walk into the dockside building, that creates “a situation where someone could get run over and possibly killed.”
Port officials say ILWU members can use it safely because they are already stationed nearby and know which machines are operating at any moment.
“Safety is first from our standpoint,” said Bob Waters, vice president of SSA Marine, which leases Terminal 30 in Sodo from the Port. Another reason is to “avoid potentially volatile confrontations between the truckers and longshoremen,” says a letter last October from Richard Lentini, an attorney representing SSA.
The restroom dispute, truckers say, is the latest of several indignities.
Last year, 400 truckers walked off their jobs for two weeks and formed the Seattle Port Truckers Assocation, an advocacy group.
Most of the area’s 1,300 or so truckers, dispatched by large and small companies to move cargo at four Seattle terminals, are classified as independent contractors under federal law and cannot unionize.
The Teamsters union and other critics say the result is a race to the bottom.
In Seattle, most of the short-haul truckers are immigrants from East Africa. Their niche is called drayage, the movement of loads one or two miles between the waterfront and the two BNSF Railway yards.
Short-haul drivers generally lack job-based health insurance, secure parking for their trucks and protection against diesel fumes.
At a rate of $40 to $44 a load, studies from a few years ago found they earn an average $30,000 yearly, though many earn more by being lucky or dogged enough to find extra runs.
The Teamsters have offered support and proposed legislation to aid West Coast short-haul truckers.
A union staffer even contacted Port police to mention that the June lavatory incident was no surprise.
Some truckers say they used the lavatory in the past without incident, but not anymore.
They face a situation similar to “Jim Crow with its unequal restrooms,” says a letter by Lawrence Hildes, a lawyer for their association. Hildes said last week a lawsuit will be filed soon.
The Port collected $73 million in property taxes last year, and moved about 1 million containers, earning $59 million net operating income from its marine terminals.
“When you make millions of dollars, billions of dollars, why don’t you put up a couple restrooms?” said trucker Aynalem Moba.
Port spokesman Peter McGraw said the terminal operators, as tenants of the Port, are responsible for deciding what facilities to provide.
SSA’s Waters said the average trucker spends only 13 minutes passing through Terminal 30, so the port-a-potties plus hand sanitizer are sufficient.
Seattle’s Terminal 46 and Terminal 5, with different operating tenants, have restrooms available to truckers.
A restroom also is available at the north gate of SSA’s own Terminal 18, far from load zones.
Drivers say that during a typical shift, shuttling containers for 10 hours, they can be stuck in traffic lineups, have trouble finding restrooms and sometimes urinate in bottles.
Berhane and fellow trucker Mohamed Muhiddin, who told police he was blocked from using the lavatory last fall, each said they went during ILWU break periods, while traffic stopped. But McGraw said machinery can cross at any time.
A single ILWU member was charged in both incidents with misdemeanor fourth-degree assault.
The cases are still contested in King County District Court.
Port Commission President Tom Albro said he wasn’t aware of the friction over restrooms at Terminal 30, but he’ll check into it.
“We in the Northwest are in much better shape when things are working in harmony,” he said.
A matter like this should be solvable, below the level of formal actions by the commission, he said.
“I just have to believe if we all try, we can find a way to work it out.”
Williams, the ILWU local president, said he’s willing to talk and cooperate with the drivers.
“There’s a lot of things working against these truckers,” he said. “It’s unfortunate the conditions aren’t better.”