"The mayor really wants someone there to talk about health issues. I have never known a mayor to put someone on the commission and one of their engagements is to talk about health." She would also like to see a public participatory-process policy built into the port. "This is about sharing the power," Gordon said. "I don't think West Oakland residents know they have power." She has "no problem" with truckers unionizing but also wants to find a way for drivers to remain independent contractors if they prefer.
Uno told the Guardian that he is highly supportive of the proposal. "I think that if the whole commission takes the lead of Mayor Dellums that this proposal will be very seriously considered," he said. "I'm very optimistic." Asked if he thought a proposal could succeed without requiring trucking companies to hire truckers as employees, he said, "I do not see how that is possible, given the lack of regulations in the trucking industry. It's a dog-eat-dog world among independent truckers."
The ports were not always structured as they are now. Before the 1980s the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated trucking, and most truckers at California ports were members of the Teamsters. They had health care, pensions, and workers' compensation insurance and were paid a middle-class wage.
As part of a national push toward deregulation in the late 1970s, Congress, spurred by President Jimmy Carter, deregulated the trucking industry in 1980. In the following few years, a flood of new trucking companies entered the ports, with shippers choosing between a growing number of companies for each job. As small trucking companies undercut one another in bidding wars, the falling rates translated into declining driver pay, the bankruptcy of Teamster-organized companies, and increasing reliance on independent contractors whom companies could hire without spending money on payroll taxes, health care costs, or other benefits that unions might try to extract.
Trucking expert Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, has shown that long-haul truckers now earn less than half of prederegulation wages and work an average of more than 60 hours a week, while retailers like Wal-Mart have thrived. "The low rates paid to truckers in this global-trade game acts as a subsidy for increasing the amount of trade," Belzer told us. "Pollution and safety hazards are the negative externalities." If all ports on the West Coast required employee drivers, he said, "the market result would be that cost and safety would go up, and pollution would go down."
There have been a handful of Teamsters-related or trucker-led rallies and work stoppages at the Port of Oakland since deregulation, including a technically illegal strike in 2004 protesting the soaring price of diesel fuel, which virtually shut down the port for eight days. Many of the same complaints of today's port truckers were aired at that time long waits in lines, poor pay, long hours, and no benefits.
"This business is like the Mafia," Lorenzo Fernandez, 36, said, standing in front of two metal taco trucks glinting in the noon sun, along with about a half dozen other truckers on their lunch break. "They're doing whatever they want with us, between the [truck companies] and the shippers. There is so much competition between the companies, and they know that we need the job. They know that our kids will go hungry."
Muhammad Khan, 33, said he's sometimes forced to make up for long wait times by driving dangerously fast on the freeways. "We have our families. We have to take care of them. We all risk our lives because we have to. We don't make enough money if we don't make a load," Khan told us.
"We're all immigrants here," Fernandez said.