An Alameda County Superior Court judge has ordered a well-connected city contractor to pay nearly $1 million to his former employees. Judge Robert Freedman stated in a court order that Bill Aboudi, who controls a truck parking contract with the City of Oakland, owes 73 workers about $965,000 in back wages and interest for failing to pay the employees what they were owed, dating back to 2008.
The judge's May 21 ruling comes at a time when the Oakland City Council has been working behind the scenes to help Aboudi, who also runs the companies AB Trucking, Oakland Port Services Corporation, and Oakland Maritime Support Services. Aboudi has been complaining publicly about not being able to strike a deal to move his truck-parking operation onto port property while the city redevelops its half of the former Oakland Army Base. So the council ordered city staffers to intervene on Aboudi's behalf, and they are currently hammering out a deal for the city to lease space from the port and then sublease it to Aboudi.
The council's actions on behalf of Aboudi also come despite the fact that there is strong evidence his truck-parking facility in West Oakland routinely violated federal pollution laws, and public records show that he has repeatedly fallen behind on his rent payments to the city — to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of dollars (see "City Contractor Faces Labor and Environmental Charges," 3/6).
In an interview, Councilwoman Libby Schaaf said the judge's decision might prompt the council to rethink its favorable attitude toward Aboudi. "We value workers' rights; so this judgment is disturbing," she said. "I'm sure it is something we will talk about."
In his ruling, Judge Freedman said that during a two-week trial last year, truck drivers who worked for Aboudi "testified they typically worked more than eight hours each day, but that they were typically only paid for eight hours each day." The drivers also said that AB Trucking routinely deducted one hour of pay from drivers' paychecks for meal periods but provided no evidence that employees were actually allowed to take meal breaks.
The judge also said that AB Trucking officials routinely refused to allow drivers to take rest or bathroom breaks and were told to urinate in bottles while sitting in their truck cabs. "Some drivers were encouraged by AB [Trucking] to relieve themselves in a bottle, via a funnel in the case of one female driver," the judge stated, "or a bucket, in the case of another female driver, rather than take the time to stop to use the bathroom."
And finally, the judge stated in his ruling that Aboudi admitted during the trial that he employed "trainees" but never paid them, in violation of state law. AB Trucking's payroll and timekeeping records, the judge added, confirmed that the trainees "were not paid at all for any hours worked."
In an interview, Aboudi blamed the Teamsters for his legal problems, alleging that the union was behind the class-action lawsuit that resulted in the judge's ruling. "This is how the justice system works," he said. "If you have money, you get justice .... We're being attacked. ... It's an attack on small business."
Doug Bloch, a Teamsters official, said in an interview that Aboudi's problem is that he shouldn't have bilked his employees. "It's a fact: He cheated workers," Bloch said.
Aboudi has feuded in the past with the Teamsters over labor organizing. And the class-action lawsuit centered on a key labor problem at the Port of Oakland. For years, large shipping companies have forced small truckers to wait in long lines at the port to load or unload their rigs. And if truckers get out of the line to take a break, they lose their spot.
Over the years, the Teamsters and other labor organizations have lobbied ports to work with larger trucking companies who employ union drivers in the hopes that they will be powerful enough to push back against the big shipping companies, and thus put an end to the long lines of trucks. Environmental groups joined this cause, recognizing that truck idling at the port worsens air pollution in West Oakland.
But Aboudi led the local fight against this effort, contending that it would hurt small trucking companies, like his AB Trucking. The result, however, has been that small truckers must still wait in long lines at the Port of Oakland, and if they take a break, they lose their spot in line.
Nonetheless, Aboudi denied that his company ever told drivers to urinate in bottles, calling the allegation "garbage." However, he indicated that he does not have enough money to appeal the judge's decision. His financial problems also make it unclear as to whether the workers will ever receive the money they are owed. According to court records, Aboudi's attorneys recently attempted to withdraw from the case because he had failed to pay them. Judge Freedman denied their request.
The same law firm, Bryant Brown, also recently attempted to withdraw from defending Aboudi in a separate environmental case in federal court because of his failure to pay them what he owed. That case, which is being brought by the environmental group Northern California River Watch, the Teamsters, and East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, alleges that Aboudi's truck operation allowed polluted stormwater to flow freely into the bay for years. The two sides have been in settlement talks, although Aboudi may not have enough money to pay fines related to pollution violations.