Earning the Ticket: An Interview with Tarcilo Caldera, Oakland Port Trucker and POTA activist

Posted on November 22, 2013

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A passerby who was looking for work downtown that day extends support and solidarity through the window of Tarcilo’s truck after he had been detained by Oakland police.

Tarcilo Caldera is a thirty year old member of the Port Trucker’s Association [POTA]. He moved to the US from Nicaragua with his family at the age of five—his father has been a Port trucker since 1989 and his mother is a janitor in San Francisco.

Trucking is in Tarcilo’s blood. He spent summers with his dad in the cab, and his father showed him how to drive a truck in empty lots when he was just a kid. He has had a Class A license since the age of 19, and has been a port trucker for four years.

Tarcilo participated in last week’s incredible trucker convoy support action, where POTA drivers surrounded Oakland’s city hall with their trucks and used their horns to literally put the mayor, port and state officials on blast. The truckers were there to support POTA representatives who are trying to get the city, port and state to give them some relief over selectively enforced California Air Resources Board rules that will put an estimated 800 independent truckers out of work on January 1st if nothing is done to mitigate them.

In the process, Tarcilo was singled out by OPD [along with another trucker a few minutes later] bullied, harassed and threatened with arrest. A crowd of supporters “de-arrested” both truckers in a thunderous—and at times emotional—show of solidarity, forcing the OPD to retract their threat of arrest and to tear up the ticket in front of Tarcilo.

Tarcilo told me about his struggles as a trucker at the Port of Oakland and his encounter with police during the convoy in this interview conducted by phone on November 20, 2013. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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HR: Tell me about yourself.

Tarcilo: I was born in Granada, Nicaragua, and my parents brought me here when I was five years old, and I’ve been living in San Francisco ever since.

HR: How did you start driving a truck?

Tarcilo: I started driving a truck through my dad. Ever since I was little, I used to come with him in the summer and got the hang of it when I was very little. He let me drive in the parking lot of the yard and I started liking it and did more and more. And so he taught me everything about driving and I decided that I wanted to do it after high school.  At first, I started driving for a fish and poultry company in South City, because according to the insurance I was way too young at 19, and it was going to be expensive to drive for myself, or have companies pay for my insurance to drive for them. So no one wanted to hire me.

I moved over to a company in Brisbane and started to actually put my class A to use. And I drove for them for three years. I hurt my knee playing softball, and I decided that it didn’t feel quite right for the stuff I was doing, having to deliver food products to restaurants and what-not, upstairs, pulling dollies with a hundred fifty, two hundred pounds, upstairs or downstairs and my knees didn’t feel quite right to do that again.

So I decided to purchase my own truck with the help of my parents and get into the port trucking business. I’ve owned my own truck for four years now and working at the Port [of Oakland].

HR: Is your truck compliant with CARB rules?

Tarcilo: My truck now is compliant. I’ve had this truck for a year. But right when I was starting with the idea of getting into the Port trucking business, I researched as much as I could, and that’s when the whole, you have to get newer trucks deal was starting to happen. And according to the law back then, all the dealers that I spoke with and everyone that I spoke with was telling me 2006, 2007 trucks have till 2017 to be able to work out of the Ports of California. And so I went ahead, like I mentioned with the help of my parents, I got a 2006 truck. Everything seemed fine, and then a year later, they decided to change the law and said that 2006 and 2007 trucks and older were no longer going to be allowed inside the ports of Oakland. So I was forced to come up with some sort of money and get the truck I have now.

HR: Was that a hardship for you?

Tarcilo: Yeah, man, that was ridiculous, I went to numerous places to ask for a loan, and my credit is pretty crappy because of a house that I lost about eight years ago. So my credit went to hell basically. And I went to numerous places, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, you name them, I went there. And basically humiliated myself, begged and pleaded and my mom did the same thing, to try to help me out and get me a loan. To try to sell this truck that I had purchased for $31,000 and get a loan to buy this $60,000-plus truck that required at least a 20,000 dollar down payment to have a decent note on. So we did that. It was either that or sell the truck and go back to the old job if they would take me back. But my body didn’t feel up to it. My knees don’t feel right still. At that point, it was just, what the heck am I going to do now?

For me it felt like I was robbed blind. I was told this is going to work out for you till 2017. And that didn’t just happen to me, it happened to a whole bunch of other guys here as well.

HR: Who told you that?

Tarcilo: The dealer that I was calling when I started looking for trucks and also the people giving out information at the Port.

And so at the time it was like, what the hell do I do now with this $30,000 truck that I’m in debt with? Who’s going to buy it, who’s going to come up with that much money? My mom works in San Francisco, she’s a janitor, and on her lunchtime she went to numerous banks and tried to talk to people and tried to get us a loan and we were just turned down every single time.

HR: How did you work it out?

We had paid cash for the 2006 truck, with a loan on the side from Wells Fargo, which of course I’m paying for still. Since I had the pink slip, I put it up on craigslist and Trucksaver and a guy from Fresno purchased it from me for $18,000—which I then had to give as a down payment [for the new truck]. And I was able to get the rest of the money through a loan from a relative and I was able to buy the truck. But every other route that I went, it was just like no, we can’t help you. You’re not a business, we can’t give you a business loan. Whatever excuse they could come up with or they would just simply just say no, you have bad credit.

HR: So just a year later, you had to lose twelve thousand dollars on the truck you just bought, to get rid of it so you could put a down payment on the new one.

Tarcilo: Yeah.

HR: Obviously, that was hard. But it sounds like you resolved it. So what I would wonder is now what’s compelling you to be involved with the POTA and these actions that you’ve been involved with?

Tarcilo: Well, just the fact that it’s unfair. Regardless of the fact that I have a port compliant truck, I don’t have that–and excuse my bad language–that fucked up mentality, of I’m selfish, I’m good and you’re fucked. I don’t have that mentality. My parents taught me better than that. But my dad has to replace his truck right now, before January. But even if my dad didn’t, I still would be here supporting. because it’s not only a fight for these guys getting an extension, or these guys getting help to get trucks, it’s also we need better rates, we need better treatment in the port. We don’t have a lot of rights because we’re labeled owner operators and that’s not right. I mean, I can’t stand for that. I’m not just going to sit here and say, okay, this is what you’re giving me, it’s cool. We deserve more. You know, we’re not going to get more if we don’t fight for it.

HR: When did you become involved with POTA?

Tarcilo: Well, not too long ago. Every time there was a strike and it was called on or voted upon by POTA, I was always in communication with the drivers that were involved. I didn’t know that POTA actually existed, but found out through my coworker who was really involved.

And every time they would strike I would park my truck and go to the lines with them. I went to a few of the park meetings that were at [Middle Harbor] park at the end of the port there. But I actually became a member about two, three weeks ago.

And once I started going to the meetings I saw how I could help, and that this is something actually that I could help change. Because the problem in the port, at least with the unfair treatment, is that for most of these guys, English is their second language. So they either speak really bad English, or they don’t speak English at all, so they’re out there and they have these guys talking crap to them, mistreating them, yelling at them, and there’s no way to defend themselves. And that’s not right to me. I witnessed it a few times, but I was hesitant to get involved because then I get my ass kicked out, too, and there was no one to defend me.

And I learned about POTA and the whole movement that they have going on that’s supportive of other drivers, helping them, and trying to fight against unfairness. I was like, I could do that. I speak perfect English, I’m out there myself. I’m a witness, I’m part of it, I’m living it, and I could speak for the guy that can’t. And this is what has me really gung-ho about it.

HR: How did you get involved in the convoy and was it a hard decision to make? Because you were taking a risk.

Tarcilo: It was definitely not a hard decision for me. As soon as we suggested that in the meeting, I definitely was willing to do it. I had never had second thoughts. I know that I ran the risk of arrest over my truck getting towed, or something even worse. But I never had second thoughts. Because I knew people would notice. I can’t just sit around while someone else sacrifices for the entire group. And I can’t just sit around and watch people sacrifice and I’m just waiting for the positive results. I can’t be that.

I was going to a few meetings and that’s how I heard about it. And at one of the meetings, that’s when it was suggested and I was in. We voted on it and I was definitely willing to do it, and like I said, i didn’t have second thoughts.

HR: Was your dad at the same meeting?

Tarcilo: Yes, he was as well, and my dad was in the convoy as well. We sit next to each other at these meetings, in case he has something that he wants me to say for him. But when it was suggested we both agreed that we were definitely going to be part of it, there was no second thoughts from my dad either, or backing down from it.

HR: Your dad doesn’t speak English fluently?

Tarcilo: He understands and can get by on the little things. He can’t have like a fluent conversation like I’m having with you.

HR: So when you’re talking about helping to defend other people whose English isn’t as good as yours, you’re also talking about your dad.

Tarcilo: Yes, I’m also talking about my dad.

HR: Tell me the story about getting pulled over at the convoy.

Tarcilo:  As we were going past the POTA group up front, and right before we came to the stop light and made the turn, an officer came up to me and immediately started yelling at me and said, you, park it over there. And I asked him why. And he said, because I said so. And I was like, I don’t understand, what is it that I’m doing? Cause I said so, and you’d better park it now.

I went ahead and parked it right at the corner. And he said, I’m giving you a ticket for breaking the law. And i was like, okay, so what law am I breaking? So he said, you’re protesting and you’re breaking the law by using your horn unlawfully. I was like so you’re giving me a ticket for honking? Or you’re giving me a ticket for protesting and honking?

And I told him, I don’t understand why you’re singling me out. Are these intimidation tactics? And I guess he didn’t like that, he got pissed and he said, don’t ask me any questions, you’re going to get a ticket. And I was like these are just intimidation tactics, you’re bullying me, you’re abusing your power. And he got even more pissed and he said, I’m going to give you a ticket no matter what.

And I was like fine, give me a ticket, but if you’re going to give me a ticket for honking, then Imma earn it. Imma earn my ticket. And I continued to honk the horn. The cop got even more upset and he said, you’re fucking getting arrested. Now I’m getting arrested for honking my horn? He said, yeah, you’re getting arrested. And he called another officer over. And he said, keep this guy here, Imma write him a fucking ticket and he’s getting arrested.

And so then I started communicating with the rest of the drivers, putting over the air that I was getting arrested and if anyone had a passenger in their truck, that could come get my truck. Because I wasn’t too worried about getting arrested, my concern was getting my truck towed, because that’s at least going to cost three to five hundred dollars. And they’re not going to excuse that, even though they were going to arrest me for the wrong reasons.

And then a co-worker of mine actually had a passenger who started walking over to my truck from the back of the line, and we were just waiting for me to get arrested so that he could take my truck. And that’s when a bystander asked me what was happening. I explained it to him, and I asked him if he could get the group to come over on this side, and just record everything that was happening.

And the group came over and that’s when they started going at it with the cops. And I guess the cops were intimidated by the group, thinking that they were just going to bully me and no one was going to notice. And after the group came over, the cop that was there said I’m not going to give you a ticket now. And at the time it didn’t register because I was just so pissed, and I said, okay, so is this going to affect my record? And he said, no, I’m not going to give you a ticket. And I said, wait a minute, he just said I was getting arrested too. So you’re telling me you’re going to let me walk away, you’re not even going to give me a ticket like you said?

And he said I’m going to rip it up. Here’s your license, you can leave. They let [the other driver] go because of the group also. And they didn’t give him the ticket either. But the main issue was with me, the guy really wanted to take it out on me.

And I was thankful to the group that came over. Because of them they let me go. And if not, who knows what that guy would have taken it to. If he would have aggressively taken me out of my truck or whatever.

HR: How did that experience make you feel?

Tarcilo: You know, he was definitely abusing his power. I have every right to protest. There was no need for him to talk to me like that. There was no need for him to single me out, or any of what he did. But I was so upset at the time that it was just like I can’t believe how helpless I felt.

Because no one else was taking notice. It was a helpless feeling—like fuck, what do I do now? And since we had the communication through our CB radio, that’s where I was just letting loose. That’s where I was venting. And everyone was hearing me out that was on the same channel and I think that’s what helped me keep me cool. Because it was like so frustrating to see this guy in uniform just basically say, I’m going to fuck with you and you have no choice.

HR: How did you feel when you saw the group coming to help you?
Tarcilo: It was great. It was something that I’ve never been a part of and right there is when I decided that I have to be proactive with this movement. These people not knowing who I am, not being part of this group of workers, they’re over here yelling, running the risk of getting arrested themselves, you know, to come save me from getting arrested and getting my truck towed. It was like such a relief, and it was like, man, people aren’t so fucked up as the world seems.

HR: You all took a vote to authorize a work stoppage. What are your hopes, and how do you think it will succeed?

Tarcilo: Well, I think the most important thing for our success is the meeting with the ILWU. We’re going down there and speak with them, and hopefully they could recognize us as a group of workers going through the same struggles as they have. Although we can’t be labeled union, our rights are being stripped from us, or never been given to us, because of that. It’s the same struggle, it’s the same thing that they fight for. Individually they say, I’ll help you, I’m in there for you, you just have to convince everyone else from the ILWU.

I think that’s when we’ll really make an impact, and that’s when really, people are going to notice the unfair treatment that we’ve been going through. That my dad has been going through ever since he started. With the unfair rates, with the unfair treatments, the not being able to have bathrooms in the ports, being stuck in there for six hours. I think this is going to come to light, and the media will have more coverage, because if the ILWU supports us, the ports will completely shut down.

If there was support from the other [non-owner/operator] truckers, even if the ILWU didn’t recognize us, or didn’t support us, if the rest of the truck drivers did, then no one would go into the port. But most of these guys are drivers and they get threatened. If you don’t go to work, this truck’s not yours, you’re not going to have a job tomorrow. So they have to go in tomorrow. They’re drivers. Most of those guys are drivers, the trucks are owned by Antonini’s, GSC, Rocha, Central Cal, Knight and other companies like that. So they can’t decide to say, I’m going to support you guys, because the truck is not theirs. Their boss is like, you don’t move this truck, you don’t work. You’re not going to have a job tomorrow.

HR: These drivers are facing some of the same issues in terms of the wait and conditions.

Tarcilo: They’re definitely facing the same issues, we’re facing, you know. If they supported us, they’d get better wages, hourly wages, because they get paid by the hour. Their companies are going to get paid more starting January and if they don’t fight for this like we are, they could just keep getting paid the same amount and their company’s going to keep pocketing all that money that they’re getting. So I think they can be in POTA if they wanted to. Because they could get kicked out just like I can, and noone’s there to defend them. They’re going through the same struggle. They could get kicked out, they don’t have bathrooms, just like I don’t when I’m in there. They wait six hours at a time. They get bitched at and yelled at and everything, just like I do when I’m in there.

HR: How do you feel about the work stoppage possibly coming up next week?

Tarcilo: I’m not nervous one bit. I’m excited for it. I think hopefully we’ll get more coverage on the news, I think this time more people have noticed, more people are aware and I’m excited to make some noise and be noticed.

HR: Is there any chance that the city or the port are going to come back with some money at the last-minute to avoid the work stoppage?

Tarcilo: I think they’re going to BS us like they always have. I don’t think as of right now, they’ve taken it seriously. Honestly, I think they’re going to just say there’s no money. And that’s why I truly believe that on Monday we’re going to have a work stoppage. Because the holidays are coming, tons of shipments are coming for the season and if it stops for a week or more, it’s going to affect a lot.

HR: What happens if you don’t win? If you don’t find some funds, if you don’t find a way to keep these drivers on the job? Are you guys going to keep fighting?

Tarcilo: Well, I’m definitely going to keep fighting. But what’s going to happen is that a lot of the guys, my dad, coworkers and others are going to be out of work. And it’s going to be devastating.