Importing injustice - Page 7

How deregulation and Wal-Mart poison the Port of Oakland's neighbors and force poverty wages on its truckers
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"We make it possible for the economy to grow up, but they're stepping on our faces.... We have to work together. Otherwise we are going to be slaves for life."

A sign on a chain-link fence near the taco trucks reads, "Got an old truck? The Port of Oakland can help! Replace your old truck today!" Call the number at the bottom of the sign, and a recorded message issues an invitation to an informational barbecue that took place four months ago. The message explains that the port will provide qualifying owners with up to $40,000 to replace trucks dating from 1993 or before with a 1999-model truck. But Schaff told us, "Due to overwhelming demand, new applicants are currently not being accepted."

Money for the program came from a $9 million settlement of a lawsuit West Oakland residents filed against the Port of Oakland in 1998, alleging that their health was being harmed by port operations. The port says it will replace a total of 80 of the estimated 2,500 port trucks with those funds. When asked if the port had a responsibility to truckers, Schaff said it was "consistent with the port's commitment to social responsibility.... We've done a lot, and we're going to do more."

But the only specific programs the port could point to were the truck replacement program, a trucker access committee and working group started after the 2004 strike, and new GPS cell phone technology that is being touted as a solution for bottlenecks. Chuck Mack, the Teamsters' Western Region vice president, isn't impressed. "They're a joke," he said of the programs. "Very few independent contractors have utilized them."

The recent purchase of the GPS system particularly irritates Mack. "Here is a quasi-governmental agency supplying services to the trucking companies," he told us. "It's bizarre that we're using taxpayer money for this. Any other industry would buy the devices themselves."

"We don't disagree with using this money" for truck replacement, Mack said, "but what you're doing is blowing $2 million in taxpayer money. Years down the road they're going to need a new truck and another million in taxpayer money. For Wal-Mart and Target it's great because they can have the taxpayer pick up the bill. Without changing the model, it's just a short-term fix at the expense of the taxpayer."

EMPLOYEE BENEFITS

Beyond the environmental and economic benefits of making truckers employees of the companies, the change also might improve port security. The federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, expected to be implemented in the fall, will check the identities of the nation's 750,000 port employees, 110,000 of whom work as truckers. Under the present system, there is no way to track the independent port truckers.

Employees are easier to track, and they are also better for port security in other ways. Among low-paid port truckers, turnover rate is extremely high, according to the ATA. "We all know that having a stable, well-trained, reliable workforce only leads to more security," Bloch said. "If they're trained, they can be the eyes and ears of the port."

Well-paid truckers also would lead to safer ports. In a 2005 report, Belzer showed that "a substantial fraction" of independent operators actually loses money each year, resulting in "a high risk of unsafe operations among those earning the least money." The low compensation also "presents a national security risk," his report read, "since those who desperately work to break even might be at risk to engage in activities that put the nation at risk, whether intentionally or unintentionally, just trying to find a way from not going under."

Driving past another long line of trucks idling outside a gate after lunch break, Bloch pointed out one truck.

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