King5: Hundreds of truck drivers walk off job at Port of Seattle

Monday, February 6, 2012

By Chris Ingalls

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Hundreds of truck drivers at the Port of Seattle have walked off the job and lawmakers are deciding if they need to take action.

The impact is being felt by some Puget Sound businesses. At Culinary Collective, a Mukilteo-based importer of cultural foods, a vital shipment from the Port of Seattle arrived Friday -- a week late -- costing the business an estimated $25,000 in lost sales.

'I'm sure in situations like this the big companies have resources to get their containers out of the Port," said Betsy Power, owner of Culinary Collective. "it's really the small guys like us that get damaged."

It's one example of the fallout from growing discontent at the Port of Seattle. An estimated 300 to 400 port truck drivers walked off the job this week, complaining that conditions make their trucks unsafe.

"It's very dangerous for the public," explained truck driver Demeke Meconnen. "it's very dangerous for me. But I have to provide food for my family."

There are many complex issues in play, including drivers who claim they are forced to carry overweight loads. If a shipper can put more cargo in a container and move it for the same price, they make more money. Drivers say it happens all the time.

In front of lawmakers this week, the head of one shipping company said it wasn't a problem.

But truck inspections conducted the day after that testimony tell a different story. The KING 5 Investigators requested port inspection records from the Washington State Patrol and Seattle Police. They show of 15 trucks inspected that day; four drivers were written tickets and three received warnings for being overweight.

"There's a lot of overweight loads," said Meconnen. "We don't even know what we're taking out of the terminal."

Drivers say its unfair that they pay fines for equipment that isn't theirs. Typically, the container belongs to the shipper, the chassis that it sits on is owned by a trailer company and the drivers are the owners and operators of the truck.

In Olympia, lawmakers introduced bills that would shift more responsibility to the companies that subcontract the drivers -- legislation that came in response to  a KING 5 investigation that revealed serious safety problems with more than half of container haulers inspected. Lawmakers want to put the brakes on trucks like the one that fell apart in front of Bob Kentner, sending 14-pounds of metal through his windshield.

"Had it been three or four more inches to the left or right I could have had my head decapitated," said Kentner of his accident.

Shipping and retail representatives testified in opposition to the propsed legislation. The Port of Seattle says operations have been slowed in some cases, but many drivers remain on the job and most businesses are getting their cargo.

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