They would require trucking companies to hire drivers as employees, shifting maintenance costs from the drivers to the companies, which would retrofit or replace all port trucks with more environmentally friendly rigs. The ports would allow only new, cleaner trucks to enter. The companies could then, in theory, pass the costs on to shippers and end users.
If drivers were paid as employees by the hour instead of by the trip, the coalition expects the market would reduce inefficient truck wait times and air pollution.
"When you rent an apartment you sign a lease," Bloch told us. "If you trash the place, you get evicted. Corporations are trashing this community, but they're not being evicted."
A test case could soon be under way at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest in the United States, and the situation is being closely watched by ports and industries across the country. Port commissioners there had hoped by the end of this month to approve the coalition's program, which they expect to reduce diesel truck emissions by as much as 80 percent over the next five years. But growing opposition and the threat of lawsuits by groups like the California Trucking Association, which represents the owners of truck companies, and the Waterfront Coalition, a consortium of major retailers, led the ports to delay their decision. The commissioners now expect to vote in September after completing an economic impact survey.
At the center of the storm is the fact that as employees, truckers would be able to organize and form a union. As independent contractors, they are barred from doing so because of antitrust laws originally created to oppose vast enterprises that dominated industries. (A further irony is that giant retail steamship companies have experienced incredible consolidation and enjoy a limited antitrust immunity.)
If passed by LA port officials, the plan would be implemented there starting Jan. 1, 2008, and could result in a domino effect at the other, smaller ports across the country. "The industry is fighting like hell in LA," Bloch told us. "They know that if they're going to have to pay, the party's over."
Meanwhile, Bloch told us that more than 1,000 truckers have signed a petition asking the Port of Oakland to pass a version of the coalition's proposal, and it will be presented to the Port Commission, the seven-member body that would eventually vote on the proposal. Spokesperson Libby Schaff told us that the port "agrees with the coalition that the port can and should have a more direct relationship with its truckers" and is "very seriously considering the coalition's proposal."
Because the proposal "constitutes a major overhaul of the way trucking is done today," Schaff said the port is currently holding stakeholder meetings with residents, truckers, terminal operators, elected officials, the business community, and labor to consider it in the context of a more comprehensive port plan. Schaff said a comprehensive plan could be crafted in less than a year.
The port has not taken a position on granting truckers employee status. It is also looking into other funding mechanisms for a clean-truck program, including money from a pending state bill that would impose a $30 fee on every 20-foot-equivalent unit passing through the Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland port complexes, to be used for improvements in road and rail infrastructure and for clean-air programs.
The legislation, Senate Bill 974, by Alan Lowenthal (DLong Beach), would generate more than $525 million annually. But it faces tough opposition from some very powerful interests.
Bill Aboudi, president of Oakland's AB Trucking and a member of the CTA, told us truckers are "treated like second-class citizens," and he believes long lines and trucker asthma are serious problems.
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