March 21, 2017
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

Organizing the supply chain: interview with Jeff Farmer

Organizing the supply chain: interview with Jeff Farmer

There are a lot of folks working in transport and logistics who are unaffiliated with a labor union. Jeff Farmer, the Teamsters' director of organizing, wants to change that.

By Mark B. Solomon

The supply chain is a big and small place. Big in that it touches virtually every part of the planet and affects each one of us. But small in that the people who make it go are often one- or two-person bands that don't get much notice yet are vital cogs in an enormous wheel.

For the Teamsters union, this collection of port drivers, warehousemen and women, and loaders and unloaders, among others, offers tremendous opportunity to bulk up its membership rolls. It is uncharted territory, however, and one that's difficult to crack because of labor laws that bar independent contractors, which many of these workers happen to be, from forming a union.

The union's director of organizing, Jeff Farmer, recently spoke with Mark B. Solomon, DC Velocity's executive editor-news, about the problems facing workers who feel they have no voice, how the Teamsters want to move the needle on the all-important issue of worker classification, and the supply chain becoming the union's top organizing priority.

Q: What is your message to persuade workers who have never been unionized and may never have thought about the value of union representation?

A: We listen to what workers say about their work. Their primary concerns are not about wages and benefits. Their issues are with how they are treated, their employer's lack of respect for them, unilateral changes imposed on them, and general unfairness in the workplace. Simply put, their voices are not being heard. Our message is simple: To have a real voice on the job, workers need to stand together, form their union, and win the right to sit across from their employer and bargain collectively. The only way workers can have effective input on the issues that affect their work lives is to win the right to bargain a union contract—which guarantees those wages, benefits, and conditions.

Most workers intuitively understand that with strong Teamster representation backing them, they can win improvements. We also know from research that, if given a free choice, a huge percentage of workers would choose union representation. Nevertheless, workers face real fear in exercising their rights: fear of retaliation from their boss, weak labor law protections, and the widespread use of union-busters. Our job is to give workers hope, confidence, and a plan to successfully fight back, to demonstrate that it can be done.

Q: The growth of e-commerce fulfillment has created job security for warehouse labor that has seen wages rise in the past two years at a faster rate than virtually any other U.S. occupation. How do you convince these workers, who finally have bargaining leverage given the industry's dynamics, that union representation is an asset?

A: This has not been our experience. If anything, there is less job security, less worker power in this industry. The e-commerce giants have incredibly high turnover with a relatively small permanent employee workforce, and they rely heavily on temporary help. Most of the workers who move the goods through these facilities are employed by third-party agencies and have no job security, few if any benefits, and absolutely no power. Also, much of the work is increasingly automated, displacing even more workers. These trends are being copied across the logistics industry by large and small players. We see it at most warehouses where we have been organizing. All of this poses enormous challenges for workers to organize.

Q: How do you figure out the logistics of organizing workers who are so dispersed, where you might have four workers at this location, five workers at that location, and so on?

A: This is what we do, what the job of organizing is. Our model relies on one-on-one conversations with workers and their families outside of their workplace, in addition to on the job. It is hard, but we have tools to help us figure out the logistics and track our progress. It has always been boots on the ground, with one-on-one communication to organize workers. In that regard, our current Teamster members—those working in the same industry as the workers we're trying to reach—can be the most effective advocates in describing the rights and benefits they have gained.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you expect to face as you expand your organizing efforts into areas that have been largely foreign to the Teamsters?

A: There are not too many areas foreign to the Teamsters. We pride ourselves on being one of the most diverse labor organizations in the world, having members that range from airline pilots to zookeepers. However, our organizing efforts these days are focused primarily on transportation and the global supply chain. Here, we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of our existing power in freight, warehousing, package delivery, ports, and air cargo down to the last leg of the product chain in waste management and recycling.

Again, the principal obstacle faced by workers is the lack of effective protections when they organize. Labor law has not kept pace with modern corporate practices of outsourcing, the misclassification of employees as "independent contractors," and other schemes to escape liability to workers and government.

Q: There have been several court rulings in the past couple of years that transport workers once classified as independent contractors were in reality company employees. This may become a pivotal issue because labor law bars independent contractors from forming a union. What is your strategy here?

A: We have taken this issue head-on. We are leading the way to challenge management's claims about independent contractors as part of our efforts to organize port drivers and local delivery drivers. As you said, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) doesn't allow truly independent contractors to form a union. So if the workers are independent, we can't organize them. But the scam practice of misclassifying workers who are not independent and have no control over their work has become widespread, and workers are starting to push back.

We are coming to the aid of workers who have been misclassified. Corporate-driven efforts to mislead workers, unions, governments, and communities by misclassifying huge segments of workers as independent contractors were hatched many years ago to limit liability for companies, to divert responsibility, and to ultimately push costs onto everyone else. Through the Teamsters' efforts, more people have become aware of the misclassification issue, and its truly sham nature is being exposed.

Q: Do you have any estimate on the size of the potential market?

A: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its 2016 report on union membership found that only 6.4 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized. Obviously, there are millions of workers without the benefit of a voice at work. If our nation is to truly address the alarming decline of the middle class and to deal with the problem of income inequality, we must organize workers on a massive scale, and at an accelerated pace. This may sound like a pipe dream, but as we have seen, workers are increasingly fed up. They have had enough of working harder for less, having no say on the job, and facing an insecure future with no pension or retirement—and they are looking for a way out. There is tremendous potential to organize them into unions.

Q: You have targeted XPO Logistics Inc. largely because it touches so many parts of the supply chain. It has a significant union presence in Europe through its 2015 acquisition of French firm Norbert Dentressangle. There have been worker protests at various XPO-related events. Are you taking steps to combine organizing efforts with those of XPO's European unions, and what are the cultural and workplace challenges in doing so?

A: We have a very close relationship with our brother and sister unions overseas. We work with the International Transport Workers Federation and with individual unions in countries across Europe and in other parts of the world.

XPO operates in a global economy, where business is done at different levels of union density and labor relations. It is imperative that those of us who represent workers' interests have matching global reach. We have worked with our international allies for many years. Today, our relationships are more tightly knit than ever before. European union representatives joined us last year at XPO's annual shareholder meeting, and they made it clear that we are a family of unions that stand together with a common goal of winning dignity and respect for XPO workers.

About the Author

Mark B. Solomon
Executive Editor - News
Mark Solomon joined DC VELOCITY as senior editor in August 2008, and was promoted to his current position on January 1, 2015. He has spent more than 30 years in the transportation, logistics and supply chain management fields as a journalist and public relations professional. From 1989 to 1994, he worked in Washington as a reporter for the Journal of Commerce, covering the aviation and trucking industries, the Department of Transportation, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, he worked for Traffic World for seven years in a similar role. From 1994 to 2008, Mr. Solomon ran Media-Based Solutions, a public relations firm based in Atlanta. He graduated in 1978 with a B.A. in journalism from The American University in Washington, D.C.

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