National calls to stop pollution-generating “sweatshops on wheels”

From coast to coast, the fight to win labor rights for the nation’s port truck drivers and to clean up industry-induced pollution in communities surrounding the nation’s harbors picked up considerable steam last month.

The actions included street heat in Newark, N.J., the introduction of legislation in the nation’s capital and in California, and legal action to implement the award-winning Los Angeles Clean Truck Program granting harbor truck drivers rights under the nation’s labor laws.

In Newark, community and environmental activists joined port drivers in a spirited protest at Port Authority headquarters Feb. 24 calling on commissioners to ditch the current truck replacement program that will force nearly 700 drivers out of work this month, the national Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports (CCSP) reported on its website.

Instead of requiring low-wage port drivers to take on huge loans to upgrade or replace their old trucks, the protesters are demanding that trucking companies be the ones to invest in clean trucks and, along with the shipping lines, bear the cost of reducing toxic diesel pollution. 

“It’s a shame to have these sweatshops on wheels going through our neighborhood and polluting our air,” Brad Kerr, a community activist in the Columbia Waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., told port commissioners.

“We’re here to support (port truck) drivers and get clean trucks!” Kerr added, according to CCSP.

The Newark City Council has unanimously approved a resolution demanding action by the Port Authority. The Council called on the Port Authority to “adopt a comprehensive clean truck program that achieves real economic and environmental justice for all Newarkers.”

“Lax oversight allows some 5,500 port trucking companies nationwide to skirt tax laws and push all the costs of doing business onto their drivers by misclassifying them as independent contractors,” CCSP reports. “Accordingly, academics put average driver take-home pay at $10-11 an hour.”

CCSP further revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates “87 million Americans now live and work in port regions that violate federal air quality standards where diesel soot-induced asthma, cancer and respiratory illnesses rates are disproportionately high.”

CCSP continues, “Ninety-five percent of our nation’s 110,000 port trucks fail to meet current EPA emission standards.”

In Los Angeles, an unprecedented alliance of truck drivers and environmental, labor, community, faith, civil rights and public health groups backed by the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won the model LA Clean Truck Program before the LA Harbor Commission in 2008.

In addition to measures designed to cut air pollution drastically, the Commissioners agreed to require trucking companies to hire truck drivers directly as employees, thus bringing them under the protection of the nation’s labor laws.

This would open the door for union organization since as independent contractors, drivers currently have no such rights. The Teamsters Union has been spearheading the struggle to win for port drivers’ reclassification as employees so that they may gain the right to unionization and the collective power that comes with such organization. 

The American Trucking Association (ATA) challenged the LA clean ports program in court soon after it was launched, delaying its implementation. Though a district judge initially ruled in the LA port’s favor, the ATA’s appeal is now before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris Feb. 22 joined the fray when she filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appeals court, arguing for preserving the original decision in favor of the Clean Trucks Program. Oral arguments are expected to begin soon.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 18, state Assembly Speaker John Pérez, and Sandre Swanson, chair of the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee, introduced AB 950, which would reclassify port truck drivers as employees of the trucking firms.

Both state legislative chambers are led by the Democrats, and since the elections, so is the governor’s office, making serious consideration of the bill likely. 

The California legislative initiative comes on the heels of last month’s reintroduction of H.R. 572, the Clean Ports Act of 2011 by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

While the bill is not expected to get a fair hearing with Republicans in control of the House, its introduction reflects the widespread public concern for the health and safety of those who work and live in and around the nation’s ports.

In the last couple of years, three major ports and several big-city mayors including those in New York, Newark, Oakland, Seattle and Los Angeles, have formally urged Congress to modernize federal transportation law to address this public concern.

Photo: Trucks line up to pick up loads at the Port of Oakland. (PW/Marilyn Bechtel)