Importing injustice

How deregulation and Wal-Mart poison the Port of Oakland's neighbors and force poverty wages on its truckers

More than 100 tractor trailers were lined up at 6:30 a.m., inching toward the Port of Oakland's Terminal 7, waiting for their next load. Against the backdrop of the San Francisco skyline, a mammoth freight ship emblazoned with the name Hyundai glided toward the port, pregnant with multicolor shipping containers.

A driver told the Guardian that he expected to be in line for at least two hours waiting to drop off the empty container attached to his big rig. His 1989 truck lacks air-conditioning, so the windows were rolled down, allowing diesel exhaust to pollute the air he was breathing.

It's the same scene at many of the port's other terminals: long lines of ancient trucks slowly snaking toward their destinations, their primarily immigrant drivers performing the essential and thankless task of transporting cheap clothes from Asia to the nation's big-box retailers or helping to export California's agricultural goods to Hawaii.

The fourth-busiest container port in the nation, the Port of Oakland is the economic engine of the region, providing thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in revenue. But activists say that the port system has also led to sweatshoplike conditions for truckers and created a health crisis for the surrounding community.

On their poverty-level wages, truckers are usually able to buy only the oldest, most polluting trucks. Their diesel pollution is a major factor driving asthma rates through the roof in the neighboring, primarily African American neighborhood of West Oakland, where, the American Lung Association says, one in every five kids has asthma.

A new national coalition of labor, environmental, and community activists has advanced a proposal that would make all drivers employees with benefits, radically changing the way work is done on the waterfront and possibly heralding the return of the Teamsters to the ports for the first time in more than 20 years. In the process, the proposal would make the port's biggest customers responsible for its environmental problems.

The coalition places the blame for the current situation squarely on giant retail shippers such as Wal-Mart and Target and is calling for them to be held accountable for the full environmental and labor costs of the cheap goods they sell — a call the corporations are strenuously resisting. The American Trucking Association, whose members contract directly with the corporation, has threatened a lawsuit if the change is adopted. But port officials have voiced a willingness to seriously consider implementing the proposal.

Having long claimed that the trucking industry is outside its control, the Port of Oakland could embrace the proposal as a means of satisfying community, environmental, political, and business concerns. With impending directives to clean the air coming from Sacramento, trade planned to almost double by 2020, two new Port Commission appointees representing labor and environmental concerns, and a federal antiterrorism tracking plan slated for this fall, the port is poised to play a leadership role that could reverberate up and down the West Coast and across the country.


The Port of Oakland's estimated 1,500 to 2,500 drivers are a far cry from the middle-class, long-haul Teamsters and the Smokey and the Bandit–<\d>style freewheeling rebels who have long been engrained in the American imagination. Instead, they are at the bottom of the port's food chain and are the most exploited trucking sector in the country, consisting primarily of recent immigrants struggling to make ends meet.

Dawit Fre, 39, immigrated to Oakland from the small nation of Eritrea two years ago. "I wanted to see a better life," he told us. Fre was a driver in Africa and went to work for the Port of Oakland after his cousin told him people start their trucking careers there.

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