In a move that could ultimately affect all U.S. ports, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — together the country’s biggest port complex — earlier this month announced proposals to slash air pollution from the trucks that ply their harbors by over 80 percent within five years. At the same time, port truckers, now called “independent contractors,” would become employees of the trucking firms doing business at the ports, substantially improving their labor rights and helping plug loopholes in port security.

After public hearings are held, a decision is expected in July.

The announcement followed a campaign by the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a broad coalition of labor, environmental, faith based, public health and community organizations.

Now most port truckers, as independent contractors, are paid as little as $9.50 or less an hour, work an average of 11 hours a day, and lack benefits and union rights, the coalition says. Over 600 firms contract with the 16,000 LA-Long Beach truckers, most of whom must be responsible for their own operating costs and truck maintenance.

At the same time, the coalition says, the LA-Long Beach complex is southern California’s biggest source of air pollution, with pollution from port trucks making them a significant health hazard.

Calling the plan “unique” and “historic,” Chuck Mack, director of the Teamsters Union’s Port Division, added, “Every port in the country is experiencing similar problems.”

Under the plan, trucking companies operating at the port would have to bid on contracts with rigorous environmental, equipment and workplace standards. Drivers must be employees, not contractors, while companies must meet insurance and security requirements. Within five years, all trucks must meet environmental standards.

The Teamsters are among several unions participating in the Clean and Safe Ports coalition. Mack, based in Oakland, Calif., said the Oakland Port Commission is expected to unveil its proposals in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the coalition is also talking with ports in Seattle-Tacoma, Miami and New York-New Jersey.

“People recognize that unless you make these jobs meaningful and valuable, turnover will continue to be a major problem,” Mack said. “With such high turnover, how can you expect truckers to keep their trucks environmentally sound, or to meet security requirements?”

Miguel Lopez, Teamsters port representative in southern California, said the union is working to ensure that current drivers would have priority for jobs as the trucking companies transition to the new system. Lopez said the coalition sees the ports, workers, local residents and the business community all having a stake in a sustainable port complex. “It’s a matter of working with everybody so that everyone gains,” he said.

Calling the LA-Long Beach proposals “huge,” Doug Bloch of the Oakland-based East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, also a coalition member, said “We hope to see something similar for Oakland.”

Noting that the West Oakland neighborhoods near the port have endured many port-related problems but gained few benefits, Bloch added, “We’d like neighborhood people to have a chance for good jobs” under the plan.

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