Marjorie E- Wood

Marjorie E. Wood: Port strike mirrors organized labor's early days

Port truckers in California walked off the job in November to protest their dismal working conditions. Required to lease trucks while paying insurance and maintenance costs, drivers often earn less than minimum wage.The strike came just days after big box retailers, manufacturers, and other supply chain stakeholders sent President Obama a letter warning that labor disputes could cause “a full shutdown of every West coast port.”Spearheaded by the National Retail Federation — whose members include large corporate retailers  such as WalMart — the letter stated that a shutdown would be “catastrophic,” costing the economy up to $2 billion a day. Over a hundred business associations who signed the letter requested “immediate action” by the federal government to prevent such losses. Though a shutdown did not happen, tensions remain as port truckers, dockworkers, and other workers step up their demands to be treated fairly during the peak holiday season.

This isn’t the first time in our nation’s history that a transportation strike has made big business anxious. In 1877, when thousands of railroad workers went on strike in a dozen American cities, businessmen pleaded with then-President Rutherford B. Hayes to intervene.

Businessmen had reason to worry. At the height of the 1877 strikes, more than half the freight on the nation’s railways stopped running.

Circumstances leading to the railroad strikes were not unlike our own today. Unregulated economic growth after the Civil War concentrated wealth in a few hands. Labor conditions deteriorated as big business sought ever greater profits. The first Gilded Age was born.

Then, as now, transportation workers held the strongest hand in demanding higher wages and better conditions. Unlike other workers, they could disrupt business as usual everywhere.

The railroad strikes showed how powerful workers could be when they united. Workers across all industries responded in solidarity when business and government tried to put down the railroad strikes.

After 1877, labor unions grew and more strikes ensued. Ultimately, this led to passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the bedrock of modern employment rights.

Over a hundred years later, port truck drivers are denied the very same employment rights that workers in the first Gilded Age fought so hard to achieve. In the last year, port truckers have gone on multiple strikes protesting their misclassified status as “independent contractors.” Nearly 70 percent of port truckers are denied protections and benefits due to misclassification, according to the National Employment Law Project

Port trucking was a secure, middle-class occupation until Congress first deregulated the trucking industry in 1980. Now, most port truckers lack basic labor rights, such as workers’ compensation, overtime pay, and even a guaranteed minimum wage.

Port truckers aren’t the only workers in this boat. They’re also an essential link in a supply chain that ends with low-wage retail workers at Walmart. If port truckers wage a protracted strike, it could reverberate throughout the entire national economy.

While their plight hasn’t commanded the widespread attention that the 19th century rail strikes did back then, port workers just might be the key to restoring basic labor rights for all Americans.

Marjorie E. Wood, a columnist for, where this piece originated, is a senior economic-policy associate at the Institute for Policy Studies ( and the managing editor of


Marjorie E. Wood: So they think they're better, eh?


Tiffany Beroid, a mother and Wal-Mart employee in Laurel, Md., was forced to drop out of college because of her employer’s low wages and erratic scheduling practices.When she spoke out about the problems she faced, Wal-Mart fired her.Since then, Beroid has shared her story with Congress and anyone who will listen. In July, she told lawmakers that Wal-Mart workers “shouldn’t face problems like this working at a company that brings in $16 billion in profits a year.”Makes sense, right?Not according to {professional speaker} Steve Siebold— a multi-millionaire and author of the book How Rich People Think. In a recent viral article with the self-evident headline, "What the Middle Class Doesn’t Understand About Rich People'',  Siebold suggests that working Americans like Beroid should stop making “empty statements” about their billionaire employers and instead take a lesson from them.Call it “richsplaining.”So what are you failing to understand about the rich? Mostly that they’re better than you.

Siebold insists that such billionaires like Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s affluent heirs {they did not work for their billions -- they got it by accident of birth} deserve their wealth because they think, feel and act differently from ordinary people. If working Americans could “really understand the mindset of the richest people,” he says, “they would be among the top earners as well.”

Unlike the rest of us, according to Siebold, rich people believe in themselves, focus on the future, value their freedom, and are comfortable with uncertainty — all traits that the masses just can’t fathom.

Come again?

Tiffany Beroid doesn’t need any lectures about believing in herself. She enrolled in college to become a nurse while raising a toddler and holding down a job at Wal-Mart. That takes a lot of self-confidence.

“OK,” Siebold might say, “but she probably doesn’t dream about the future.”

Actually, the future is what guides Beroid’s decisions. As she put it, “I thought that if I worked hard, I could give my family a stable home and lift us out of poverty.”

But does she really understand the value of freedom? According to Siebold, after all, only “rich people can afford to stand up and fight oppression.”

In fact, since losing her job at Wal-Mart, Beroid has been speaking out against worker oppression and taking bold actions to stop it.

At this point, Siebold might take a deep breath and say, “OK, but there’s no way Beroid could understand operating in a state of constant uncertainty. That trait truly distinguishes the rich from everyone else.”

He’d better try again. No one understands uncertainty more than a Wal-Mart employee like Beroid who found herself scheduled to work 40 hours one week and 15 hours the next. Thanks to unpredictable scheduling practices that can make it impossible to budget time or money, many wage workers’ personal lives and economic livelihoods are in constant upheaval.

For his next book, maybe Siebold should just skip the rich. He could interview Wal-Mart employees instead.

Sorry, Siebold. The “richsplaining” just doesn’t fly.

 Marjorie E. Wood is a senior economic policy associate at the Institute for Policy Studies and the managing editor of This was distributed by