Short-haul drivers like Baljinder "Nick" Singh are a vital but almost invisible cog in global trade, moving cargo from huge ships to nearby warehouses and rail yards. About 1,800 of these drivers work in the Seattle area, and most are immigrants from East Africa, India and Russia who see the job as a step onto...

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Baljinder “Nick” Singh hustles out of his Burien basement apartment, fires up his Freightliner truck, and by 7 a.m. is in a Seattle freight yard, hurrying to hook up a 40-foot cargo container to his rig.

“If it takes more than five minutes you’re losing money,” Singh says.

He’ll drive without a break, running between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and warehouses in the Kent Valley. Singh has hauled everything from Jet Skis to Angus beef.

“Every single thing that you use and see in the market is in these containers,” he says.

But by 4 p.m., there are no more loads. A promising day ends in frustration — a take of just $80, before taxes. That’s not enough for payments on the truck, or the repairs it needs after 598,000 miles. Not enough for rent and living expenses for his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

If he could, Singh would sell his truck and change careers.

Short-haul drivers like Singh are a vital but almost invisible cog in global trade, moving cargo from huge ships to nearby warehouses and rail yards. About 1,800 of these drivers work in the Seattle area, and most are immigrants from East Africa, India and Russia who see the job as a step onto this country’s economic ladder.

But with business sagging and fuel prices soaring, drivers are near a breaking point.

And as if the economy weren’t problem enough, everybody seems to want something from the truckers.

Neighborhoods near the Port of Seattle, such as Georgetown, want the big, noisy rigs to stop parking and idling on their streets. Environmentalists want drivers to cut diesel emissions — everywhere. Port commissioners want drivers to buy newer, less-polluting trucks that cost around $100,000. The Teamsters want the drivers in their union.

On a recent Friday evening, roughly 280 drivers gathered in a Georgetown banquet hall for a raucous meeting that looked and sounded like a United Nations assembly with a bad public-address system.

One after another, drivers grabbed the temperamental microphone and, in heavy accents, spoke about how to demand better pay and more respect. They wondered how this disparate group — with little money or political clout — might bring international commerce to a standstill by shutting down their trucks.

“We are an important cog, but no one sees the role we play,” Singh says. “We are going to be doing some serious action. It might be a strike.”

The goal: a better life

Singh, 28, grew up in the Punjab region of northern India, where his family had a 50-acre farm and he ran a building-materials shop. “It wasn’t like we were begging on a roadside.”

But he wanted better, and came to the United States in 2004 after marrying an Indian woman who is an American citizen.

Singh worked at a convenience store and gave himself an American nickname. ” ‘Nick’ is my 7-Eleven name,” he laughs, as he sits in I-5 traffic.

He tried long-haul truck driving, thinking he’d be his own boss and make good money.

But he didn’t like spending days and weeks away from family and friends in the Sikh community. He switched to short-haul driving at the Port, where Sikhs like Singh are prominent and recognizable by their turbans. It’s a weekday job with regular hours, requiring minimal mastery of English.

Other immigrants are drawn to short-haul driving for similar reasons. Mohammud Olad, from Somalia, thought trucking would be safer than driving a cab. Amanuel Belay, from Eritrea, believed it would be more lucrative than jobs he held as a janitor and taxi driver. Michael Alazar, also Eritrean, hoped it would give him the time and money to realize his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Short-haul truckers, already a big part of the country’s truck-driving work force, are expected to grow in number and importance as global trade expands.

But this is a particularly challenging time to be a driver. A 2006 study by Port Jobs, a Seattle nonprofit, found the average short-haul trucker at the Port of Seattle drove an 11-year-old rig, worked 11 hours a day and earned $31,000 a year. But that was two years ago — before cargo volumes dipped almost 10 percent and diesel prices nearly doubled to almost $5 a gallon. Most drivers do not have health insurance, retirement plans or paid vacation.

Almost half of the 147 drivers surveyed by Port Jobs spoke a language other than English at home, with 19 different languages listed.

“After the trucking industry was deregulated [in the 1980s] we’ve seen a fundamental shift toward having more recent immigrants in our industry. There are no barriers. Anyone with capital to buy a used truck could get into the market,” said Dan Gatchet, a former president of the Washington Trucking Association and area manager for RoadLink, a national trucking company.

“The good thing about this job is I’m my own boss and I have a lot of freedom,” Singh says. “But now the only thing I’m getting is the freedom, not the money.”

Days of uncertainty

When drivers go off to work, they don’t know what the day will hold.

Most are independent contractors who own or lease a rig. They depend on the companies they work for to dispatch them to jobs.

Unlike long-haul truckers, who are generally paid per mile, short-haul truckers tend to be paid for every container they haul.

On a good day, a driver might make eight runs. But the average, according to the Port Jobs study, is just under four runs.

On a recent day — which included a two-hour wait at Seattle’s Harbor Island to drop one load and pick up another — Singh made four runs.

He grossed $250. Fuel and insurance for the day cost an estimated $170.

Singh and other drivers want trucking companies to pay higher container rates. Drivers also want to be reimbursed more for fuel, saying what they get now — which seemed fair two years ago when diesel was $2.50 a gallon — falls far short.

And they want to be paid for their time in line, waiting at port terminals to load or unload.

Their situation is made more difficult, they say, by their dependence on well-paid longshoremen, who unload ships and move the cargo onto trucks. They say they have to wait while longshoremen take coffee and lunch breaks. Frustrated by drivers’ inexperience, longshoremen sometimes curse at them, truckers say.

“Right now, I’m stuck”

Singh says he would like to go to technical college and become a mechanic. But he still owes $25,000 on the used truck he bought for $32,000, and no one wants to buy it. “Right now, I’m stuck.”

With few options, drivers such as Singh are trying to unify others to make demands. But there’s no consensus on what to do next.

At the recent Georgetown meeting, some drivers indicated in a show of hands that they were willing to strike; others weren’t. Some wanted to join the Teamsters; others didn’t.

The national Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports points to Los Angeles for a solution. Los Angeles officials approved a plan this year requiring trucking companies that work the port to become concessionaires. The Port would then have some say in how the trucking companies operate and would require them to hire drivers as employees, not contractors.

That way, drivers could get health, retirement and vacation benefits. They’d get paid by the hour instead of the load. Their companies would pay for new, cleaner trucks through fees charged to shippers, says Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the coalition, which is led by the Teamsters, other unions and environmental groups.

And, as employees rather than contractors, truckers could join a union, Weiner says.

Shippers and trucking companies intend to challenge the Los Angeles plan in court. Even if Seattle were to adopt a similar plan, Weiner says, it could take a year or two to put in place — which wouldn’t help drivers with immediate problems such as fuel prices.

“I’m sympathetic to their plight,” says Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani. “They’re at the bottom of the economic ladder, no question.”

But the Port, which leases property to shippers, doesn’t have contracts with trucking companies; it has no direct role in their business, he says.

Port officials will try to hold meetings with drivers and trucking companies, hoping that leads to higher container rates for truckers.

In the longer term, Yoshitani says, he hopes “market forces will create an environment where they can make a good living.”

That might happen if shippers charge customers more to cover rising fuel costs, and some of that is passed on to truckers. Or it might occur through a Darwinian thinning of the fleet, with some truckers forced out of business.

In the meantime, no one knows where the truckers’ frustrations will lead.

“Right now drivers are very agitated,” Weiner says. “When the pot boils over, I don’t know.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Singh’s typical day
Short-haul trucker Baljinder “Nick” Singh worked nine hours on a recent day and made $80 before taxes. Here’s a breakdown of that day’s earnings and expenses.
EARNINGS*
Seattle to Tacoma load $50
Tacoma to Kent $50
Sumner to Seattle $50
Seattle to Sumner $50
Fuel allowance $48
Total earnings $248
EXPENSES
Insurance, prorated $29
Fuel (based on 5 miles-per-gallon

efficiency and $4.94 per gallon cost)

$139
Total expenses $168
Net income before taxes $80
Note: *Rates vary slightly by shipper and Singh hasn’t received his paycheck; $50 is the average for those runs, he says.