Port Truckers Step Closer to Shedding Dirty Past

A labor-environmental coalition in Los Angeles including several Teamsters locals inched closer to making the city’s giant port less destructive for its neighbors’ lungs—and its workers’ rights.

A federal judge refused to grant the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) request on September 8 to suspend a plan that would ban heavily polluting older trucks. It would also compel trucking companies to hire their workers as employees, not independent contractors, opening up the possibility for organizing them.

In the works for years, the plan will go into effect October 1. According to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a member of the coalition, there will be an immediate 50 percent reduction in truck pollution at the adjacent L.A. and Long Beach ports.

DIFFICULT HISTORY

Since federal deregulation of the industry in 1980, industry restructuring led port truckers to work as independent contractors, who are not allowed to form unions. More than 90 percent of the workforce was organized during the 1970s, a number turned on its head since then, said Gary Smith, an organizer with Teamsters Local 952 in Orange, California.

Southern California’s port truckers have seen organizing drives before. In 1996, Communications Workers Local 9400 led an innovative campaign at the booming ports, where the number of truckers had doubled in a decade. Local 9400 called rolling strikes, and had 4,000 truckers sign union cards. They sidestepped the independent-contractor barrier by arranging to contract with a new company that pledged to hire workers and recognize the union.

The ports were hostile, and iced the company out. The plan crumbled when owner Don Allen failed to fund his corporate transformation, leaving disaffected workers back at square one.

In recent years, immigrant truckers have led wildcat strikes over fuel prices and work conditions.

Area Teamsters locals have also rallied in California ports for years. “A lot of locals are interested because down the line we want to organize,” Smith said. “This is a huge paradigm shift away from the misclassification.”

The Teamsters have been talking to port truckers since the late ‘90s, but Smith says the campaign didn’t take off until Change to Win got behind the port plan.

Trucking companies are intent on shutting down labor’s side-door organizing strategy.

“The Teamster solution is to fuse their interests with the environmental groups’ interest in lower pollution,” said Michael Belzer, a trucking industry specialist and professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “The employers remember the Teamsters being the guys in control and now they are not ready to relinquish control.”

The ATA is appealing the plan to the federal Ninth Circuit Court, which could rule on the case in months. Several trucking companies in the ATA have abandoned the legal fight and signed agreements that tie access to the ports with compliance to new pollution and employment rules. Other companies have begun buying new trucks and hiring drivers.

The port plan proposes to phase out older trucks over three years, and fine companies using them. A bill in California’s legislature—threatened by the governor’s veto—would impose per-container fees on cargo ships to fund the green fleet.

CARRYING THE LOAD

If the state bill doesn’t force shippers to share the costs of upgrading the truck fleet, trucking companies will bear much of the cost. But in Long Beach it’s a different story.

The same requirements for newer, cleaner trucks apply there, but companies won’t be required to grant their truckers “employee” status. This puts the economic burden for the upgrades on a largely immigrant trucker workforce, who make about $30,000 a year. In late August, truckers protested Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster at a Clean Ports event, calling for cleaner trucks, but not at their expense.

The Long Beach plan offers a subsidy that would offer new $100,000 vehicles for a third of the price. It’s not affordable for most independent truckers, who pay for their own fuel and maintenance, and drive nearly 90 percent of 17,000 trucks that service the ports.

“What’s most likely to happen is that drivers have to default on their lease payments,” said Max Palma, who’s been hauling in L.A. for 16 years.

LAANE activists think that Long Beach’s port will be forced to come around. Because companies that signed up in Los Angeles will haul from Long Beach, too, there will be a de-facto transformation at both ports.

HESITANT STEPS

The ports plan still must vault other hurdles. Though they backed the plan, the federal courts questioned whether a local initiative can overrule federal deregulation laws. And the Federal Maritime Commission, an independent regulatory agency, has threatened to delay it.

The ports plan erodes legal barriers that have shut out unions for decades. But Teamsters activists in Southern California say they’re not sure a organizing strategy driven by lawsuits and deal-making can involve truckers and harness the rank-and-file energy of 1996 and the recent wildcats.

Organizing workers disaffected by past failures will be a tough task.

“There are people resisting it, they don’t even want to hear the name of the union,” Palma said, adding, “I think they are misinformed. We will manage and we will succeed—and make a union.”