Draft: Intermodal Trucker Labor Protest in Central Valley Stockton
By Adam W.
This is a polished draft of the first section and I’m way behind on completing this project for my program. Maybe they are mad at me, maybe just letting me slide so far. Dunno. It didn’t help that in the week I planned to set aside everything to work on it I came down with this horrible cold that morphed into a horrible cough that kept me up at night by the second week (when I wasn’t up tyring to work on this) . I haven’t gotten this sick since back in Dec. 2005 during the Kach truckers strike when I developed broncitis. Everyone seems to be talking about this really bad sickness going around- it must be one of those ‘super colds’ that’s developed because people use anti-bacterial handwash and take too many anti-biotics. Anyways, I feel the flow is strong but how I frame the topic, issues and theory stuff raised may change drastically. It hasn’t had a major look over by anyone yet. Leave a comment if you give it a read.
Nestled in the San Joaquin Valley is the easily over looked city of California’s Central Valley, Stockton. On the gritty south side of the city, off a main thoroughfare of taquerias and tire shops in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, lies unexpectedly the historical heart of the Sikh immigrant community since the turn of the century. Today the Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, is tied inextricably to the industry of trucking and as many as one third or more of the male members of the temple work in the occupation. Though there are numerous types of trucking, most own their own trucks which they lease to trucking companies subcontracted by logistics firms for the short-haul shipment of containers by truck from the rail yards to manufacturers, retailers and warehouses throughout the area. Called Intermodal trucking, the term refers to the movement by truck of shipping containers which are interchangeable between ship, rail and truck modes of transport.
On April 26, 2004 Punjabi Sikh Indian Stockton truckers, joined by the vast majority of Intermodal truckers in the area initiated a nearly two week long strike in protest of escalating diesel prices which they pay out of pocket, as well as other demands around pay and working conditions. Truck traffic out of the Union Pacific and Burlington-Northern Santa Fe rail yards crawled to 5% of normal on the first day of the strike. (The Record, April 27, 2004) The effort of the Stockton truckers, especially the Sikhs, would play a key role in the ensuing Intermodal trucker strike that swept west coast ports within the next week and even southern and eastern ports. By striking first and, as some Stockton truckers claim, playing a role in initiating the Oakland port truckers strike several days later, the Stockton Sikh truckers played a leadership role in the ensuing west coast strike. In August of the same year they went on to initiate several successful workplace actions and strikes up through January 2005 as members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union.
This work seeks to create a social history narrative of these events including the period of the wildcat strike, union involvement (of which the author was a participant) up to the point where the leadership of the drivers ended their union involvement in early 2005. This work further aims to place the drivers and their struggle in several contexts to better grasp a more nuanced understanding behind the events: An examination of the Intermodal trucking industry, a social and economic analysis of California’s Central Valley, and a look at the radical Indian and Sikh diaspora which is invariably connected to the to the Stockton truckers as we will see.
The first theme I will take up is a look at the Intermodal trucking industry. Intermodal truckers working out of port and rail yard are perhaps a model of itinerant workers in the global economy. They move the goods of major retailers, manufacturers and warehouse operations and are link in the global supply line in a “just in time” economy. Working without any of the benefits of a formal employment relationship, this work force falls under the classification of “independent contractor,” works on an on-call basis, receives a piece rate and takes on the risks of employers by owning and maintaining their truck and paying fluctuating fuel prices out of pocket.
Where the Intermodal truckers of this story work is just south of the city of Stockton, one of the major urban areas of the San Joaquin Valley, which is part of the greater Central Valley in California. This will serve as the second theme.The San Joaquin Valley stands unique in both the billions of dollars worth of crops produced annually, but also as “one of the most economically depressed regions of the United States.” The region has always relied upon a massive low-wage labor force, which since the turn of the century has been overwhelming composed of successive waves of immigrant groups. Certainly the Sikh drivers are no exception to this except for the fact of being an exclusively male workforce, similar to most trucking.
Finally this study will also attempt to draw possible connections between the struggles as truckers and the historical, political and social experiences of Sikh’s in both Northern California and recent events within the Punjab. In the early twentieth century, Sikhs formed a key part of the radical Indian diaspora that stretched across the globe with its call of resistance and revolt in opposition to British colonial rule. A key center of this community was no doubt found in the in Stockton Sikhs who were members of the anti-colonialist Ghadar Party and perhaps gathered in the very same room as the truckers met to plan workplace actions in 2004. More recently during the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s the Stockton Sikh community played a role in supporting demands for a separate Sikh state in the Punjab region (the historic homeland of Sikh’s in India) and denouncing the atrocities of the Indian government surrounding the armed conflict which emerged.
Coming to Stockton
After deliberating for nearly an hour in the library of the Stockton Gurdwara July 28, 2004, roughly fifty Sikh Indian truck drivers came to a sudden consensus- hands were raised- and the decision was made: those present would join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). “Damn the bastard that can’t afford to pay $6 for his dues,” jokingly said Sohan, one of the driver leaders as the room became a flurry of signing forms and exchanging money. After receiving their newly minted membership cards, called a “red card” in the tradition of the IWW, drivers emerged from the library meeting room of the Gurdwara library holding them up like bars of gold.
Many observers might see this moment as the beginning of a labor struggle, and certainly it was beginning of the IWW labor union’s involvement, but for the Sikh Indians who make up roughly 80% of the Stockton Intermodal trucking industry, it rather could be seen as perhaps a second chapter in their struggle. Whether in the Gurdwara library- whose walls are covered with the martyrs of the Sikh religion and fighters against British colonialism in India- or in dusty pullouts off of local highways, this wasn’t the first gathering of drivers held to discuss their conditions and plan action.
Sometimes social movements unexpectedly burst upon the national scene, the example par excellence the 2006 immigrant rights movement which began as a reaction to SR 4437 also known as the “Sensenbrenner Bill.” The reaction became the impetuous for massive street marches held in nearly every sizable city in the US and brought record numbers onto the streets in cities small and large in addition to whole industries brought to a halt by work stoppages. But what is lost by many observers is how movements reflect boiling under currents that have long preceded the moment where it reaches public attention in a dramatic manifestation. This understanding has helped frame my approach to this study.
The formal aspects of this research project began in the summer of 2007, while working as part of the San Jose State University McNair program. I was able to spend a deal of time in Stockton looking through the archival sources of the University of the Pacific as well as the San Joaquin County Central Library in Stockton, reading ethnographic and historical sources on the early Sikh community in Stockton, the Khalistan movement in India, as well as general background sources on Sikhism generally. A limited number of interviews of truckers who participated in these events as well as community activists were conducted, though additional ones are needed to further this project. I also spent time looking at the socioeconomics of the Stockton/San Joaquin Valley area as well as the history of the dominant agricultural industry of the region and the labor struggles that occurred in that industry.
The informal aspects of this project began, of course, through my own observations as a participant in a number of the events discussed. Having never been a truck driver and only having marginal experience with independent contractor workers, my relationship with numerous truckers and our various fights around day to day issues affecting them became my crash course in the structure and operation of the Intermodal transport industry. These informal aspects continued on during the formal period of my research as my relationship with truckers whom I met during the campaign and knowledge of the industry became the starting point from which to start my research. Additionally, formal interviews of several truckers as well as informal conversations with many more who played varying roles in the events supplement the analysis detailed here within.
The methodology that I follow throughout this piece is partly shaped by my own involvement as a participant and witness to many of the events after this July 2004 meeting, though the main focus of this study is the truckers themselves and not my involvement with them or the IWW specifically.
When the initial wildcat strike of Intermodal truckers across west coast broke out in late April and early May 2004, I was involved in the IWW (which I will describe more in detail later) in the capacity of a volunteer organizer in a Bay Area campaign among the workers of a small retail grocery chain (an industry I had previously worked in and had been a staff organizer for with another union). I also played a role in the administration of the union as an elected member of the General Executive Board and as a trainer in the Organizing Training Program of the union. Within the Bay Area branch of the IWW I worked with others in initiating small solidarity efforts in support of the striking Intermodal truckers at the Oakland port. Following the Stockton truckers contact with the IWW, I became one of three core organizers, we were volunteer at first but receiving a stipend as the campaign progressed. From this point on we worked with the truckers on an almost daily basis.
The initiative to begin this project, in part, came about through my own desire to give summary to and record the struggles that took place. The events also took on the character of perhaps a minor cause celebre in certain milieus of the labor movement and political left, a topic that still- years after the events- I still find myself being asked about. Articles sometime accompanied by photo spreads of the campaign appeared in the now defunct, 20-something generation oriented, progressive magazine Clamor, union reform journal Labor Notes, and the left South Asian online periodical, Samar Magazine. Internationally, the radical Frein Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union or FAU union of Germany published on the front page of their monthly Direkte Aktion a translated article along with an interview of one of the truckers.
The goal of this piece does not aim to delve specifically into the questions of why the campaign ended or under what conditions it may have continued. Such inquiries would require a level of speculation that would be better reserved for a different forum and inevitably distract from the analysis that I attempt to present in this work. Rather the main goal of this piece is to outline a narrative of Stockton Intermodal trucker protest and to place these actions within several contexts of analysis.
The questions delved into in this piece first began to form in my mind during the organizing with the mainly Sikh truckers in Stockton. Between two and a half hour round trip car rides to Stockton, meetings and endless cell phone calls, a number of questions began to pull at my consciousness. The tenacity of immigrant workers in self-organizing to confront their employers was certainly inspiring, but not original. Seeing their strikes in the context of the truckers as independent contractors, possessing no formal rights or the meager protections within the traditional context of labor law, is nothing short of courageous, but again not without several precedents. Perhaps this piece can be one more complement to the existing accounts that others have woven together around similar struggles. But I think several themes emerged in mind during my involvement with the Stockton truckers that not only fascinated me personally, but after looking into the literature and asking questions, I was led to even more questions still
If anything was a primary theme of this study it would be not just questions of agency and structure, but the examination of the political currents and elements of consciousness that come to bear in motivating and framing subaltern struggles, no matter hard to measure and grasp precisely in the same way we can so easily attribute to structural-economic factors. Devra Weber’s work Dark Sweat, White Gold on mainly Latino farm workers in the cotton industry of California is similarly “driven by the underlying question of the relationship between structure and human agency.” Overall this project is not simply a study around a particular question, an ethnographic account of a series of events or a sociological analysis of the struggle of a particular worker struggles (and it would likely fall short of each of these frameworks by themselves), but an effort fueled by all these analyses’ that seeks to create both a social history narrative of events as well as placing them in a context through which we might better understand and begin to ask questions about how we understand the terms, context and meaning of how and why workers struggle.
 Tadlock Cowan, “California’s San Joaquin Valley: A Region in Transition.” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Services/Library of Congress, 2005).
 Though no formal survey or statistical information exists regarding the demographics of the industry, this seems to be the figure I would most comfortably assert through discussion with drivers and my own observation. Estimates drivers have given range from two-thirds to 85%.
 The Stockton Gurdwara library has since undergone renovation since these events have taken place. The framed pictures of religious and Ghadar era martyrs have been put into storage as of 2007.
 See William I. Robinson, “‘Aqui Estamos y No Nos Valos!’ Global Capital and Immigrant Rights,” Race Class, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2006, pp. 71-91; and James Petras, “Rise of the Migrant Workers Movement,” Left Turn, Issue 21, September 2006.