Australian consulate dragged into Toll-Teamsters spat

Dispute between US Teamsters union and Toll’s Los Angeles operation intensifies, with the Australian consulate being dragged into the matter

Australian consulate dragged into Toll-Teamsters spat
Australian consulate dragged into Toll-Teamsters spat

By Brad Gardner | November 9, 2011

The dispute over working conditions engulfing Toll’s US operation has intensified, with the Australian consulate being dragged into the matter as the US’ workplace watchdog investigates the company.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union will converge on the consulate in Los Angeles on November 10 with community advocates, truck drivers and clergy to protest the sacking of 26 drivers from Toll-owned Summit Logistics late last month.

The move is the latest in a series of ongoing actions against Toll, which has been accused of imposing third-world working conditions on its drivers by forcing them to use unsanitary port-a-loos and banning access to clean indoor bathrooms, rest lounges and kitchens. Toll has repeatedly denied the allegations.

The Teamsters lodged charges against Toll with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on October 31 claiming the sackings were unfair. It believes Toll’s actions were in retaliation to drivers who turned up to work wearing T-shirts adorned with the Teamsters logo.

The Teamsters want the Consular-General, Chris De Cure, to support its campaign to get the drivers reinstated. It is also trying to bargain on the drivers’ behalf.

Alberto Quiteno, one of the 26 drivers recently fired, wrote a letter to Managing Director Paul Little last month decrying the "humiliating" and "horrible" conditions at Toll’s facilities.

"Toll Group drivers in Australia get to use clean and safe indoor restrooms, just like everyone else. But here in America we are told to use filthy outhouses with no running water. They are so smelly and unsanitary a lot of us try to go somewhere hidden in the company yard," he wrote.

Little expressed surprise when responding to the claims, saying the company provides all drivers with an indoor lounge, shower facilities, a spacious lunchroom and clean bathrooms at its San Pedro base near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Little says port-a-loos are used at the smaller Toll container yard, which is based at Wilmington and has no building or sewer systems available. He says the toilets are cleaned daily and have running water.

"I have asked for and now seen photos of all of these facilities and they certainly meet or exceed the standard at many Australian or overseas sites," Little wrote.

Quiteno recently flew to Australia along with a high-ranking Teamsters official, Nick Weiner, to meet Little and his soon-to-be successor Brian Kruger at Toll’s annual general meeting to raise their concerns.

The NLRB is looking into Toll’s operation after the union filed charges in September and early October accusing it of threatening drivers, spying on them and retaliating against those who expressed a desire to form a union.

Labor Senator Glenn Sterle used parliamentary proceedings earlier this year to lambast Toll, claiming "the working conditions it imposes on workers are nothing short of disgraceful".

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) has also rallied its members to support the Teamsters, including using Toll’s depot in Moorebank in NSW to stage speeches accusing the company of mistreating its US workers.

While it has not yet responded to a list of questions put to it from ATN, Toll has fired back at criticisms leveled against it.

Little used his speech at the Toll AGM to accuse TWU boss Tony Sheldon and the Teamsters of running a "misleading campaign".

He also penned an open letter to employees at Toll IPEC’s Moorebank depot dismissing claims from Sheldon that US wharf cartage drivers had no access to toilets or running water.

The letter includes photos of facilities from Toll-operated sites in Los Angeles, showing an outside sitting area, a large lunchroom, shower facilities and a clean port-a-loo.

"Tony Sheldon should be spending TWU time and resources bringing our competitors up to our standards not launching a baseless attack on the company we are so proud of," Little says.

He says Toll offers above average pay to its US drivers and that a third of its workers are employed at peak periods like casuals in Australia.

"You and I both know that Toll is a great employer. We pay better than our competitors (over 20 percent above the Award rate), we generally have better equipment and we have better safety processes," Little says.

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