But as dockworkers have negotiated lucrative contracts, other workers handling imports and exports have mostly been left out. That includes most of the truck drivers who haul goods to and from port terminals to rail yards, stores and warehouses, many of them in the Inland Empire.
But that may be changing. For six years, officials with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have been quietly laying the groundwork for an ambitious truck driver organizing campaign, one that could change the economics of the industrial supply chain. And recently, in part because the union agreed to its first contract with an employer in January, officials have become more open about their intentions.
"These are going to be nasty campaigns," said Fred Potter, a Teamsters vice president based in New Jersey. "Workers are going to be challenged, and we want to make sure they are up for the challenge. This is no different in many cases than preparing soldiers for war. "
Bravado aside, organizing drivers is a lot more complicated than simply persuading 51 percent of employees to side with the union.
Teamsters officials estimate as many as 90 percent of drivers are considered independent contractors - not company employees - and federal law makes it impossible for contractors to form a union. (A spokesman for the trucking industry called that estimate high, saying 70 to 80 percent of drivers are contractors.)
That means before the Teamsters can achieve success, they must persuade trucking firms to change how they conduct business. Trucking companies have balked at that, with many executives saying the independent contractor model - in which drivers own or lease their trucks - is more appropriate. Teamsters officials insist most of the contractor relationships are illegal.
The Teamsters have responded by pressuring state and federal regulators to audit port trucking firms. The law requires contractors to have considerable control over when and how they work, but Teamsters officials say most drivers are not "independent" at all and can only drive for one company. They say trucking companies are willfully misclassifying workers and should be prosecuted.
"It's pretty unprecedented what they're trying," said Victor Narro, project director for the UCLA Labor Center and an organized labor ally. "This industry has been so entrenched. It has a 30- or 40-year history of misclassification.
"It's a tough battle, but one thing I admire is unions that stay in these fights for such a long time. "
Alex Cherin, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association, an industry group, said the government audits have been disruptive, especially to smaller trucking firms. He said both California and federal investigators tend to a use a "shotgun" approach in which they blindly investigate firms, many of which have done nothing wrong. (Neither the U.S. Department of Labor nor California Division of Labor Standards Enforcements will discuss ongoing audits.)
The Teamsters also have encouraged drivers to file administrative wage actions against companies, accusing them of not paying them proper legal wages. A state deputy labor commissioner has the power to issue rulings in the cases, though trucking firms can appeal findings to state court.
"The Teamsters have been aggressive and relentless," said Cherin, adding that the trucking association does not condone illegal business models. "It's typical Teamsters tactics. "
This was not the Teamsters' first approach for this campaign. In 2008, the union backed a Port of Los Angeles policy to require drivers accessing the port to be considered employees. A federal appeals court found that provision, tucked in an environmental regulation, to be unconstitutional and the port subsequently dropped it.
But the Teamsters have persevered. The union made a strategic decision last year to engage in an organizing campaign at Toll Group, an Australia-based logistics giant. The company was a strong target for two reasons: It already considered its drivers employees and it had a long, mostly cordial relationship with unions in Australia.
In January, the Toll drivers were awarded some of the best pay and benefits in the industry, union officials say. But, more importantly for the organizing campaign, the victory has shown other drivers that it is possible to create a union. This is particularly important for port truck drivers who are already classified as employees and could form a union with a simple vote.
"Drivers want to organize," Narro said. "Once you get in the door - once you get this first union - it creates a ripple effect. "
James Love, 47, who drives for non-union American Logistics International in Carson, said news of the contract - workers at Toll now earn about $6 an hour more than before and have heavily subsidized health insurance - traveled quickly throughout the trucking community.
"It went through the ports like wildfire," said Love, a union advocate. "You see what has happened with Toll and you realize it can happen anywhere. And right now, Toll is a better company for it. "
Potter, the union vice president, said he did not want to divulge too much of his strategy. But in a recent interview, he said the Teamsters employ eight full-time organizers for the port trucking campaign, and he said they plan to lead campaigns at more trucking firms soon. He also said the campaign has plans for two or three more organizers.
But other companies may fight back harder than Toll. According to union officials, many have already hired so-called persuaders - or professional consultants who speak to drivers about the perils of unions at captive audience meetings.
Cherin, who speaks for the roughly 70 licensed trucking firms, said companies are prepared for the onslaught. He said unions have been trying to organize drivers ever since Congress deregulated the industry in 1980.
"This is just the latest chapter," Cherin said. "At some point you need to ask yourself, 'Why are they having such a hard time organizing?' "
Cherin also said member businesses stand by the legality of their independent contractor models. And he said firms will fight to maintain their business models, though he declined to compare what is happening at the ports to war.
"I don't know if it's war," Cherin said. "It's a strong difference of opinion on who determines how a business should be run. "
email@example.com | @briansumers on Twitter