"We're fighting for survival." That's how Gerardo Cordoba explains the struggle. He's been driving for 10 years and raises a seven year-old on what he brings home after costs. The rates haven't seen an increase in a decade and most truckers bring home less than $30,000 year. In fact, when asked how much an average driver earns, Dewey Obtinalla, a Filipino driver who regularly does long haul up the coast, replied, "If you're making $30,000, that's good, very good... With fuel, insurance, and registration, I don't know a lot of people who are doing that well." Brave strikers don't need to look far for others willing to fight.
On the two or three lively picket lines thrown up by the crowds of striking drivers, one converses with Latinos and Chicanos, Punjabi Sikhs and other Indians, Laotians, Cambodians, Filipinos, and a handful of white, Black, and truckers with other backgrounds. Huge pots of food are shared communally and supporters are welcomed as comrades.
"The most exciting thing about this strike is the unity amongst the drivers," says Mubarak Kahn, who lives in Stockton and has been driving for seven years. "We've seen good times and bad times and that unity keeps us going." When asked how the picket line looks, Kahn commented simply, "Well, I see a lot of people sitting and not too many driving... Its great to meet so many drivers from other companies. I'll be next to someone who's been doing this for 10, 15, 20 years. And I can learn a lot from them." Often times drivers don't get the opportunity to socialize as they rush in and out of the rail yards. Thus a genuine trucker community re-emerges with every strike as drivers greet familiar faces from years past.
The two rail yards in Lathrop and Stockton were ghost towns for two weeks when compared to the bustling container traffic on a normal day. A handful of truckers from a couple companies chose not to strike and crossed the picket lines of their fellow drivers. Rail management for Union Pacific and Burlington-Northern & Santa Fe enlisted staffing agencies to provide scab drivers to cross picket lines - all to the jeers, foul language, and middle fingers of fed up owner-operators. When asked about truckers who've gone back to work and experiences talking to scabs, drivers seem pretty sympathetic to the situation these people are facing. "Some of these guys are coming from Pennsylvania, Chicago, Florida...I don't blame them for doing what they're doing," says Cordoba. Obtinalla repeated the same generosity by saying, "They got to pay bills too... We can't question that." These forgiving words contrast dramatically against the gauntlet of verbal abuse hurled over hand-held mega phones at strike breakers on a daily basis. Despite exceptional unity between drivers, frustration and impatience are killers to the collective morale.
The leadership of this multi-ethnic strike movement is entirely Punjabi Sikh. Ajit Gill Singh, a confident and sharp-dressed owner-operator, emerged as the main organizer for the strikers. "Gill has a handful of people dealing with negotiations and working with him. They'll talk to the companies and relay that back to us," says Kahn. Gill's morale-boosting updates from the back of a pick-up are one part in a series of inspirational offerings given mostly in Punjabi during the long days on the line. Amid food and folk songs, truckers do their best to keep each others' spirits up while negotiations continue.
The Stockton truckers know that they can't win without widening the struggle. A strike delegation, dispatched to the Port of Oakland, pulled drivers out on strike to join them in fighting for the same improvements. Strikers in Oakland have an up-hill battle that comes in waves. Despite the tradition of militancy in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, reports say that the strike movement hasn't made it down there yet. Obtinalla, an IWW supporter who participated in the campaigns of 2004, wants to see Oakland and Los Angeles drivers join the effort in full force. "We have the unity, but its not enough...To get the attention of the government and the whole country...we need to send a message. There's not enough machinery with us yet. We need the whole trucking industry." To that end, IWWs have been frequenting the picket lines and offering our solidarity.