Port protests stall local trucking companies

Businesspeople, leaders react to West Coast demonstrations

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

Updated: December 12, 2011, 9:18 PM

 
photoProtesters block an entrance to the Port of Longview Monday. Anti-Wall Street protesters along the West Coast joined an effort Monday to blockade some of the nation's busiest docks, with the idea that if they cut off the ports, they cut into corporate profits.

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Trucking companies in Clark County said Monday their drivers and their bottom lines were hurt by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who gummed up operations at the Port of Portland.

“We just sit and wait and tell our drivers to stick it out,” Amanda Engh, an account manager for RoadLink’s operations in Vancouver, said of the effects of hundreds of anti-Wall Street protestors shutting down the Port of Portland’s Terminal 5 and Terminal 6.

The closure was part of the Occupy movement’s larger initiative to curb commerce at ports all around the West Coast region.

Engh said about eight truck drivers — independent contractors who work for RoadLink — sat idle because of the local rally.

Brad Foster, a sales representative for Vancouver-based Mitchell Bros. Truck Line Inc., said the company had about 35 truck drivers stand down because of halted operations at the Port of Portland.

“It’s going to affect us in thousands of dollars, for sure,” Foster said.

Engh and Foster were among several businesspeople, community leaders and residents who reacted Monday to the commotion across the Columbia River.

One Vancouver resident who participated in the latest protest by the Occupy movement said it connects directly with his Christian faith.

“When Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last, he was talking about turning the world of inequality ... upside down,” said Rev. Brooks Berndt of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Vancouver, who participated in the Occupy protest at the Port of Longview on Monday. “That small percent that rules up above will find itself at the bottom, that’s what Jesus was saying.”

‘Everybody’s affected’

Foster said he understands the frustration behind the movement but disagrees with some of its tactics, including the port demonstrations.

Foster said the early morning protest at the Port of Portland wasn’t Mitchell Bros.’ only concern: The company also moves freight at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, where similar anti-Wall Street gatherings were planned for later Monday.

Mitchell Bros., which deploys an average of 200 to 300 trucks daily, employs a mix of both truck drivers who are on its payroll and those who independently contract with the company, according to Foster.

For the independent contractors, or “owner-operators,” Foster said, the inability to access the Port of Portland means they don’t get paid. The company tried to find other work for drivers on its payroll.

In the Portland-Vancouver region, Foster said, the Port of Portland’s Terminal 6 is important to the region’s economy. It’s where scrap metal and other exports are handled, he said, and it’s where imports — including retail goods headed for Fred Meyer, Columbia Sportswear and Lowe’s stores — are processed.

“Everybody’s affected,” Foster said.

Engh forwarded to The Columbian an email she received from the Port of Portland on Monday morning notifying RoadLink that Terminal 6 was closed for the day. “Looks like we are dead in the water today,” she wrote to the paper.

Both Engh and Foster said their companies tried to work around the Occupy protests by sending truck drivers to regional rail yards where freight was expected to be unimpeded.

Engh said the Occupy movement’s port demonstration is “blocking the 99 percent of the working poor from working.”

Union opposes tactic

Under the banner “West Coast Port Blockade Shut Down Wall Street on the Waterfront!” the Occupy movement planned to launch blockades on Monday of at least eight ports. They are Portland, Longview, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland.

The Port of Vancouver was not on the list, and Theresa Wagner, its chief of communications, said protesters did not intrude. “Still quiet here,” she said Monday morning.

Occupy members said the demonstrations are intended to show support for a union’s battle over work at a grain terminal at Longview’s port and to highlight the struggle of port truckers to earn a living while corporations rake in cash off port operations.

Occupy members said they want to show solidarity with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at the Port of Longview.

The Longshore union opposes a decision by EGT, which built a $200 million grain terminal at the Port of Longview, to use members of the Operating Engineers, Local 701 — employed by General Construction Co. of Federal Way — to run the terminal, rather than ILWU workers.

In a YouTube video, Occupy members also said port truckers are barely scraping by while “Goldman Sachs reaps record profits at SSA (Marine) port terminals.”

ILWU leaders have said that while they support the broader goals of the Occupy movement, they oppose the group’s tactic of attempting to shut down ports along the West Coast.

Despite the position of union leaders, Occupy organizers said they worked with rank-and-file union members who support the message the group sent with its port demonstrations.

Berndt, of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Vancouver, said he traveled to the Port of Longview to show solidarity with the ILWU, so they “know they’re supported by their community and their request for fair treatment.”

Goldman Sachs targeted

In a news release issued Monday, Kari Koch, an organizer with Occupy Portland, said the group assembled its port protests “with the support of rank-and-file union members.”

Koch said Bunge Limited, a partner in the joint venture of EGT, reported a $2.5 billion profit last year “and has direct ties to Wall Street.”

She said Goldman Sachs — the Wall Street bank that has come under criticism for its role in the U.S. financial crisis — is the majority shareholder of Stevedore Services of America, which provides services, equipment and labor at the Port of Portland’s Terminal 2 and Terminal 5.

In Los Angeles, Koch said, “port truck drivers are in a labor struggle with SSA for what the drivers term a ‘sweatshop on wheels.’ ” She said 17,000 truck drivers are on strike in Los Angeles, demanding the right to organize and calling for safe working conditions.

“By shutting down work at the ports, it’s one more day that Goldman Sachs and Wall Street firms are unable to create profit at the expense of workers,” Koch said.

In a Facebook comment on The Columbian’s website, Pam Schwartz, who said she’s the wife of a trucker, said the Occupy protest was misguided and “completely out of control.”

“All this did was prevent the truckers who are on (hourly) or mileage pay to lose money,” Schwartz wrote. “(Goldman Sachs) is sitting there laughing at every OWS’r.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com