Workers, Oakland residents press Clean Trucks Program

OAKLAND, Calif. — Now that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have begun to implement the nation’s first comprehensive Clean Trucks Program, Oakland’s port truck drivers and their union and community supporters are wondering how much longer it will take before the Port of Oakland follows their example.

Drivers and supporters gathered outside the Port Commission Building Oct. 7 at the call of the labor-environmental-community Clean and Safe Ports Coalition, to urge that Oakland’s new policy must be ready for a vote in January.

On Oct. 1, the two southern California ports put into effect their long-awaited program to help clean the air at the port and in surrounding communities by drastically cutting the amount of diesel soot emitted by trucks there. At the heart of the plan is a “concession” system under which trucking companies must observe certain conditions in order to serve the port. These include a phased ban on older, heavily polluting trucks so that by 2012, all trucks must meet 2007 emissions standards. Port truck drivers — now independent contractors — will also become employees of trucking companies, which must then maintain the trucks.

LA and Long Beach together handle some 40 percent of goods entering and leaving the U.S. They are serviced by nearly 17,000 truck drivers. The Clean Trucks Program is part of a larger Clean Air Action Plan to cut total emissions nearly in half at the two ports by 2012.

The Oakland Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports says slashing the diesel emissions would drastically cut the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases suffered by drivers, other port workers and surrounding residents. The coalition also says it is grossly unfair to force the drivers, whose income averages $30,000 a year, to spend up to $28,000 to retrofit an existing truck, or far more to buy a new one meeting more stringent state air standards taking effect next year.

Lorenzo, a driver at the port for the last two years, said he would be forced to spend $10-20,000 to bring his 1994 truck up to standard. “That’s money I just don’t have,” he said. “We’re seeing the reality of a broken system that hurts us, our families and the community.”

The father of three children, ages 8, 12 and 14, Lorenzo said he barely makes a living. “Our family has no benefits,” he said. “As things are now, the government has to pay for our health care or we can’t afford to take our children to the hospital.”

“We independent truck drivers make the economy move. Anything that moves in this country is moved by an independent driver,” Lorenzo added.

As employees, drivers would also be eligible to organize with a union, which Lorenzo and his co-workers see as vital to move beyond their current “sweatshop on wheels” existence. Lorenzo said the Teamsters Union — a member of the Clean and Safe Ports Coalition along with the Alameda Labor Council and other area unions — “has a good plan” for the drivers. “The trucking companies don’t recognize or respect our work, and without anyone to represent us we’ve been in a tough spot,” he said.

As the group prepared to go into the Port Commission meeting, Teamsters Union leader Chuck Mack told them, “Unfortunately, try as we might, we haven’t yet gotten the Port Commission to move this project forward. We want Oakland’s port to do what they did in Los Angeles.”

While the program’s startup went smoothly in Los Angeles and Long Beach, some clouds still linger on the horizon. The American Trucking Association, which contends the concession requirement violates federal interstate commerce regulations, tried but failed to stop the launch last month. On Oct. 8 the ATA filed a brief contesting the concession model.

In the meantime, the Federal Maritime Commission is investigating whether the Port of Los Angeles violated federal maritime regulations with its requirement that drivers must be employees of the trucking firms. Long Beach allows both independent and employee drivers to work.

Calling the commission’s probe “kind of a last stand,” a member of the Clean and Safe Ports Coalition in southern California said several previous court decisions indicate the two ports “are on solid ground.”

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