With the blare of truck horns punctuating their chants, dozens of truck owner-operators gathered outside government office buildings in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Fremont, Salinas and other cities this week to protest California’s new gig-work law, which could make them employees rather than independent contractors.
The truck drivers waved signs such as “No on AB5,” referring to legislation set to take effect Jan. 1 that creates steeper hurdles for classifying someone as an independent contractor. Its says workers are employees unless they are free from a company’s control, do work not central to the company’s business, and have their own independent enterprise doing similar work.
Drivers interviewed at the Oakland protest on Tuesday said they feel that should remain independent because they invested upwards of $200,000 to buy big-rig trucks specifically so they could run their own businesses.
The model is simple: Truck brokers — several of whom also attended the protest and helped organize it —offer them one-day local assignments to work in construction, highway repairs, agriculture, disaster cleanup and other areas, which they can accept or reject, the drivers said.
“I don’t want to work under someone else anymore,” said Parmjit Singh of Pittsburgh, who paid $215,000 two years ago for his 10-wheeler Peterbilt dump truck, capable of hauling 18 tons. “Now if I don’t like (a potential job), I can say no. If it’s in San Jose, I say that’s too far for me. If you’re an employee, you cannot say no.”
Like many other drivers, who include a sizable immigrant population, he said he particularly values the freedom to spend extended time in his home country, India.
Ironically, the drivers’ anti-AB5 protest overlapped with a San Francisco protest Wednesday by Uber and Lyft drivers who want the companies to make them employees.
Singh said he feels the two driving professions are distinctive.
“An Uber or Lyft driver can spend a few thousand dollars on a car and stat driving right away,” he said. “We spend $200,000” and get Class A licenses, Motor Carrier Permits, and required insurance. “There is a big difference.”
Tu Ngo of American Canyon said he worked as the executive manager of a Walgreens drugstore for a dozen years and felt he hit a ceiling as an employee.
Owning his own truck allows him to pursue the American dream he was seeking when he fled Vietnam in 1982, he said. Eventually he’d like to buy even more trucks. “We have freedom of religion and speech here, but I don’t understand why they don’t offer you more financial freedom,” he said about the new law.
Eduardo Rangel of Hayward said he previously worked at as an employee of a trucking company, and his brother continues to do so.
He finds being independent much more remunerative. His annual gross income is about $190,000 without even working every month; after expenses, he nets about half that.
“My brother works 12 months to make the same money I make in eight months,” he said. As an employee, he was gone from home from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., he said.
He values being able to arrange his schedule to attend his young sons’ soccer games and spend time with them in the summer. He also takes a month to visit Mexico.
“I make enough money to support my family and I get the joy of picking my sons up from school and taking them to soccer practice,” he said.
The dozens of drivers who participated stopped working during their protests Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, but many other drivers and brokers did not participate in the protests and work action.
“I won’t lie; there’s likely no impact from the stoppage,” said Gary Smithart, a field superindentent for broker Mag Trucking of Hayward. He thinks brokers and drivers who didn’t participate are ultimately hurting themselves.
However, there are plenty of independent drivers who take the opposite view, testifying at legislative hearings on AB5 that they would appreciate the security of employment.
AB5 does exempt truck owner-operators who work with construction companies registered as public works contractors.
Drivers at the protest said they generally don’t do hauling for the Port of Oakland.
At the port, spokesman Mike Zampa said that more than half its drivers, possibly as many as three-quarters, are independent owner-operators. The rest are employees of trucking companies. While the Port of Oakland has 9,000 registered truck drivers, he thinks the actual number is much lower, because some drivers register and then stop working.
If AB5 causes drivers to be reclassified, the drivers would work for “licensed motor carriers” — i.e., trucking companies, he said.
The port would not be their employer. “The port does not employ any truck drivers,” he said.
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @csaid