Sterle gets personal amid escalation in Toll dispute

Toll's besieged US operation faces fresh wave of anger over driver sacking, as Labor senator launches stunning attack against company executive

Sterle gets personal amid escalation in Toll dispute
Sterle gets personal amid escalation in Toll dispute
By Brad Gardner | March 22, 2012

Toll’s beleaguered US operation has been bit with a fresh wave of anger over the treatment of its truck drivers, with an Australian senator launching a stunning attack against a top executive.

Fresh from tearing into the Coalition for opposing a safe rates tribunal, Labor Senator Glenn Sterle has trained his guns on Toll, which is engaged in a protracted stoush with the Teamsters union over workplace conditions.

A driver pushing for union representation, Xiomara Perez, was fired this month after stopping on the side of the road and entering a McDonald’s restaurant. She says she was ill and needed to use the bathroom. But the company fired her three days later, accusing her of abandoning her fully-loaded rig to buy food.

Speaking in Federal Parliament yesterday, Sterle labelled Toll’s actions "disgraceful" and singled out General Manager of Corporate Affairs Andrew Ethell, who flew to Los Angeles in February to meet with workers wanting to unionise.

"He was dragging LA truck drivers in for mandatory meetings with the company management where he was actively warning them against doing anything reckless – like perhaps getting a union to negotiate their wages and conditions," Sterle says.

The former truck driver brought up Ethell’s employment history, which included stints as a chief of staff to Nationals MPs John Anderson and Mark Vaile.

"Mr Ethell has gone from destroying the livelihoods of blue collar workers in Australia to union-busting in the USA," Sterle declared under parliamentary privilege.

"That is right, Mr Ethell – the young Nat made good – is now trying to ensure that Toll can continue to provide its US drivers pitiful wages and conditions by pressuring them not to unionise."

The Teamsters union claims Toll is attempting to delay its drivers from voting to form a union. The company denies this, along with allegations it forces its drivers to use unsanitary portable toilets.

"The behaviour of its operations in the USA should be a blight that is unacceptable to senior management here in Australia but, unfortunately, Toll executives like Andrew Ethell believe that the US system is one they would like to replicate," Sterle says.

"I have had many dealings with Toll over the years and they would not get away with these shenanigans if they tried that in Australia, and I honestly and sincerely in my heart would think that they would never try it."

Perez’s colleagues sent a letter to Toll’s US management in response to the sacking, demanding she be reinstated.

The drivers accused Toll of targeting Perez for her union sympathies and forcing them to attend weekly anti-union meetings.

"When a worker can be fired for making a quick stop to use the restroom or grab a quick snack to avoid feeling faint while being behind the wheel of a 18-wheeler, we know it’s time for our union," the letter reads.

"The Department of Transportation mandates that if as drivers we feel fatigued, faint, famished, or any other condition that would interfere with our ability to haul safely we must stop to rest or replenish ourselves.

"Xiomara simply relieved herself and ordered a sandwich at a McDonald’s when she takes these rules seriously. Each of us would have done the same under the circumstances."

However, Ethell says Toll investigated the incident and found that Perez did not stop to use the bathroom. He says the truck was parked on the side of the highway in a no-parking zone.

"The driver initially denied having even entering the McDonald’s restaurant," he says.

"The driver was terminated, in line with company policy, for abandoning her truck and its load in a dangerous and illegal area and failing to follow procedure to notify appropriate staff, and lying."

Ethell says Toll has also brought in more security guards at its Wilmington site following reports a pro-union crowd threatened workers and tried to force its way onto the company’s property.

He says a group involving members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), who had recently flown to LA, and Teamsters supporters, donned masks and issued threats on March 7 and 8.

"There are reports of people in the group donning masks, physically blocking access to the site, intimidating and abusing Toll staff and their family members, and trying to forcibly enter the site," Ethell says.

"No one deserves to be physically threatened, especially in the workplace. The company will act to protect the safety and security of our employees."

Ethell says Toll is behaving "openly and honestly" and is not campaigning against the Teamsters. He says it is up to employees to make their own decision in the upcoming ballot, which will be held on April 11.

The National Labor Relations Board is yet to rule on allegations Toll committed unfair labour practices. A decision was due in February.

Teamsters officials flew to Australia last year and used Toll’s annual general meeting to raise their grievances. They have also protested outside the Australian consulate in Los Angeles and railed the local community and clergy to their cause.

Sterle, who travelled to the US in 2011 to meet Teamsters officials and drivers, has previously claimed drivers are paid a pittance and denied the use of clean indoor bathroom and kitchen facilities.

"I will continue to highlight these disgraceful incidents and continue to hold the Toll Group and the Andrew Ethells of the world to account for their actions," he says.

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