Truckers Block Freeway in Protest

Seeking compensation for high diesel prices, they cause rush-hour gridlock in Commerce and slow port traffic.

By Sharon Bernstein and Sara Lin
Times Staff Writers

May 1, 2004

Truckers protesting the high price of fuel parked their big rigs on the Santa Ana Freeway in Commerce during the morning rush hour Friday, causing gridlock that backed up traffic for at least seven miles.

The shutdown was the most dramatic of a series of actions by truckers Friday that also slowed traffic along the Harbor Freeway to a crawl and reduced truck traffic at the Port of Long Beach by 85%.

Three trucks driving north on the Santa Ana Freeway around 7:35 a.m. suddenly stopped near the Washington Boulevard exit, arranging their big rigs in such a way that all lanes of traffic were blocked. Then, the truckers ran out of their cabs and into a waiting getaway car, according to the California Highway Patrol.

But before they could drive away, the three truckers were arrested by CHP officers on misdemeanor charges of failing to obey a peace officer's order.

CHP officials said they had learned the night before about the action and had placed extra patrol cars on freeways, and had several big-rig tow trucks at the ready.

"We did have some intelligence that this was going to occur," said CHP spokesman Armando Clemente. "So CHP was immediately at the scene."

It took 36 minutes for the tow trucks to remove the big rigs. But commuters bound for Los Angeles were delayed for up to three hours, said district director Douglas Failing with the California Department of Transportation.

Just as the CHP was getting a handle on the situation in Commerce, a convoy of trucks — festooned with banners carrying slogans like "The Rich Keep Getting Richer & The Poor Keep Getting Poorer" — began another protest just to the north.

The truckers — who claimed they numbered 50 — crawled through the East Los Angeles interchange at 5 mph. The slow-motion protest continued as the truckers merged onto the San Bernardino Freeway and then headed south on the Harbor Freeway toward the port. Traffic behind the convoy slowed to a snail's pace.

The truckers exited in Wilmington, blocking lanes of the Pacific Coast Highway near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as they parked their vehicles for a rally at Banning Park.

"There's less money in our pockets every day," said Cipriano Gutierrez, who was ticketed by the CHP for impeding traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway.

He worked the crowd at the park, collecting $2,680 for the drivers who had been arrested and stashing it in his green shoulder bag. The CHP identified the three truckers arrested as Manuel Gonzales, 49, of Norwalk, Jose Leal, 39, of Riverside, and Javier Ramirez, 41, of Colorado.

The aim of the protest was to pressure the state's big shipping companies to reimburse truckers for part of the high cost of diesel fuel, which has exceeded $2.40 per gallon in some parts of the state. For some truckers, the action was part of a broader move to gain union representation by pressuring trucking companies to classify them as employees instead of independent contractors.

Truckers also caused a partial shutdown at rail yards near Stockton, which started Monday, and at the Port of Oakland.

Their action on Friday grew out of increasingly angry chatter about high fuel prices and poor working conditions — on two-way radios, on loading docks up and down the state, and in Internet chat rooms devoted to the travails of truck drivers.

Like others who participated in the protest, Juan Ponce said he learned about it through word of mouth. The 10-year driving veteran said he spends nearly half of the money he makes hauling freight from the ports on fuel and other expenses.

"My son keeps asking for new things, and I have to say no," the 32-year-old Long Beach resident said.

The drivers involved in Friday's protest are among the lowest paid in the industry. Known as short-haul drivers, they mostly own their own rigs and haul freight within California — from seaports like those operated by Los Angeles or Long Beach to rail yards or the warehouses owned by big retailers.

Because they lack the purchasing clout of big companies, these drivers must buy fuel at retail prices.

Last month, as the statewide average price for diesel fuel rose to a record high of $2.26 a gallon, many said it would cost more to operate their rigs than it would to stay home.

At the Port of Long Beach, spokesman Art Wong said truck traffic was down at least 85% on Friday. If the truckers return to work on Monday, it won't be difficult to catch up, he said. In fact, drivers had been moving extra freight all week, apparently in an effort to get ahead in anticipation of Friday's strike.

"If this only happens to be one day, they'll catch up the next day," Wong said. "But if it were to continue for a number of days, there could be a serious impact."

At the Port of Los Angeles, incoming goods were stacked on the docks, awaiting truckers to haul them away, said spokeswoman Theresa Adams Lopez.

At Banning Park, events threatened to get out of hand at one point, as hundreds of drivers streamed out onto Pacific Coast Highway, throwing drink cans and other debris at big rigs whose drivers appeared to be heading into the ports.

Protesters with bullhorns were joined by union organizers and broadcasters from the Spanish-language radio station KLAX-FM (97.9). Police estimated the size of the crowd to be between 250 and 400. About 100 officers from both the CHP and the LAPD donned riot gear and shut down the coast highway between Eubank Avenue and Avalon Boulevard for four hours, from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., forcing all traffic off the road but making no arrests.

The California Trucking Assn., which represents trucking companies, disavowed the protest altogether, saying that breaking driving laws and snarling traffic would backfire against the industry's lobbying efforts in Sacramento.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the latest labor organization to take a stab at organizing the drivers, said it was not involved in coordinating the event, although several of the union's recruiters were on hand, said Teamsters national ports coordinator Ron Carver.

But, Carver said, the union supports the drivers' cause.

"These folks are driving on the thin edge of bankruptcy and a spike like this is likely to push them over the edge," Carver said.


Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland and Elizabeth Douglass contributed to this report.
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