Port truckers were forced to become small entrepreneurs: owner-operators who bought their own trucks and took on all costs and risks. Those with bad credit were even more vulnerable and signed lease contracts on trucks. As a 2017 USA Today survey found, some of these tenants were barely balanced; one man earned only 67 cents after a week of work. Freight transport was foreclosure on wheels or modern sharecropping.
The shipping industry has long complained about a truck driver shortage, and this is now especially true amid the retail crunch of the Covid pandemic. But this lack of drivers “is really more a matter of industry misclassification and a lack of good jobs,” said Kristal Romero, a coordinator for Teamsters’ port division.
These old conditions have now come together with something new: a global economy remade by the pandemic. Americans are shopping more than ever before. Factories are overwhelmed; raw materials are scarce. According to Charmaine Chua, a logistics scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, just-in-time production has proved vulnerable. The nightly news regularly broadcasts images of container ships queuing along the coasts – but this is just a sign of supply chain problems.
The South Carolina Ports Authority, which spans three container terminals in and around Charleston, has seen a 19 percent increase in container volume so far this year; the trend is holding on to other ports across the country. Containers cannot be moved fast enough.
“If you go into the harbor and you get in the wrong row, you can’t make a U-turn. You’re surrounded by trucks on all sides,” Richard Resek, an owner-operator in New Jersey, told me.
With this one jumps in turn the time, or measure of how long it takes a trucker to get to a port with one load and exit with another. Any delay comes at a high cost to individual drivers. “Taking a box away from you and putting a box on you used to be 17 to 20 minutes; it’s 30 minutes now or an hour or two hours,” Mike Weidenhamer, a truck driver in Charleston, told me. “So far this year, my sales are down 40 percent.”
Port truckers are tired of wasting time and money. They’re organizing like never before — under the banner of “all hours worked, all hours paid” — to demand recognition and record record revenues in retail and shipping. Since container shipping costs have more than tripled since last year, why, they ask, do they seem to be the only part of the supply chain earning less, not more?