Port truckers were forced to become small-business people: owner-operators who bought their own trucks and took on all the expenses and risk. Those with poor credit were even more vulnerable, signing leases on trucks. As a 2017 investigation by USA Today found, some of these lessees barely broke even; one man made just 67 cents after a week of work. Trucking was foreclosure on wheels or modern sharecropping.
The shipping industry has long complained of a truck driver shortage, and this is especially true now, during the retail crunch of the Covid pandemic. But this lack of drivers “is actually more an issue of misclassification by the industry and a lack of good jobs,” Kristal Romero, a coordinator for the Teamsters’ port division, told me.
These old conditions have now converged 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 scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, just-in-time manufacturing has proved fragile. The nightly news regularly airs footage of container ships queued up along the coasts — yet this is only one sign of trouble in the supply chain.
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 holds at other ports across the country. Containers can’t be moved fast enough.
“If you go into the port and you get in the wrong line, 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 has come a jump in turn time, or the measure of how long it takes a trucker to enter a port with one load and exit with another. Every delay comes at great cost to individual drivers. “Taking a box off of 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 trucker in Charleston, told me. “So far this year, my revenue is down 40 percent.”
Port truckers are tired of losing time and money. They are organizing like never before — under the banner of “all hours worked, all hours paid” — to demand recognition and a piece of record revenues in retail and shipping. As the cost to ship containers has 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?