OAKLAND, Calif. — The blue T-shirts of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports were everywhere, proclaiming that port truck drivers, area union members, neighborhood residents and environmental activists are united to win decent pay and conditions for the drivers and a healthful environment for the Port of Oakland’s workers and neighbors.

“We’re here to stop the exploitation of the truckers and the community. The safety of the public requires safe, environmentally sound trucks,” Chuck Mack, director of the Teamsters Union’s Port Division, told some 200 drivers and their supporters at a June 27 noontime rally at Middle Harbor Park, an island of green nestled amid the cranes, stacked containers and constant clatter of the port.

Mack was referring to the “sweatshop on wheels” experienced by drivers who are paid by the load, forced to endure long waits and often end up with as little as $8 an hour. Meanwhile, nearby residents suffer from exhaust fumes and are largely left out of jobs and other economic benefits from the port.

“This is about wages, benefits and workers’ rights,” Mack said. “If we don’t succeed in this change, we won’t be able to clean up the environment.”

Before the rally, drivers told their stories. “We’re paid by the trip, whatever the boss gives us after taking out his share,” said Jaime Magana, a driver at the port for the last two years. “We’re not paid for waiting, here or in San Francisco,” he added, as other drivers nodded their agreement. “We might get $130 for a whole day’s work, and out of that we must pay for everything for our trucks — fuel, maintenance, whatever.”

Said fellow driver Abdul Khan, “We want to be paid a reasonable rate. We need benefits and pay for waiting time. With the union we’d be lots happier.”

The Teamsters have long sought to organize port truck drivers, who became “independent contractors” ineligible for union representation when the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980.

Some 2,500 drivers contract with over 100 small trucking firms operating at the Port of Oakland. Pollution from idling and poorly maintained trucks has led to soaring rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, especially among the very young and very old, in surrounding neighborhoods.

Addressing the rally, Labor Council head Sharon Cornu emphasized that the Port of Oakland has a responsibility to use the public lands it occupies to provide good jobs for area residents as well as a healthful environment. “All our unions and community allies stand solidly behind the drivers,” she said.

Longtime neighborhood and environmental activist Margaret Gordon added, “The port must change its system so that we have clean air and decent jobs.”

Last fall the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports in Oakland came together to urge the port to drastically cut harmful emissions and clean up the surrounding environment, to improve conditions for port workers and open jobs to local residents. Among its members are the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the Teamsters union, ACORN, the Alameda County Public Health Department and many environmental, community and neighborhood organizations. In recent weeks a task force of Port of Oakland officials, environmentalists, union and business representatives, including several coalition members, began work on a Maritime Air Quality Improvement Program slated for completion early next year.

The Oakland effort is part of a campaign at ports around the country. A similar coalition has been working to improve labor and environmental conditions at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In April, the southern California ports announced a plan to slash air pollution from port trucks by more than 80 percent over five years. Under its provisions, drivers would become employees of trucking firms which in turn would bid on contracts with high environmental, equipment and workplace standards. As discussions on implementation continue, the L.A.-Long Beach Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports is collecting signatures on an online petition, calling for a “strong, aggressive Clean Trucks Program” (www.cleanports.org/ctppetition).

mbechtel @pww.org