Fighting for Good Green Jobs at Our Ports

It is often said that the ports are where old trucks go to die. Dirty, out-dated rigs move cargo that our nation depends on to keep our economy going, spewing toxic diesel emissions that are known to cause cancer and asthma. And why does this happen? Port trucking companies operate like it’s the “Wild West” — there are few rules, and their workers are exploited. In a recent The New York Times article, a top Port of Los Angeles official dismissed the notion of our trade hubs as examples of perfect, free-market economics, and instead described it as a model of “cavemen economics.”

That’s because trucking companies, or brokers, contract with individual truck drivers to move cargo for multi-national corporations like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot. Instead of hiring the drivers as employees, they misclassify them as “independent contractors” which means that the drivers, not the companies, pay for everything: truck purchase, maintenance, fuel, registration, road taxes and insurance. The companies skirt paying Social Security, Medicare, workers compensation and unemployment taxes. Health care? Forget it.

Study after study shows that port drivers in California only bring home $10-11 an hour. On low wages, few port drivers can afford to buy newer trucks that emit less toxic pollutants. If drivers get sick and can’t work, they go without pay. Their contracts prohibit them for working for more than one company. There’s nothing “independent” about it at all.

The drivers are paid by the load, not by the hour. And they can spend hours idling in line at the terminals. They’re not allowed to get out of their trucks – not even to go to the bathroom. Driving heavy trucks and cargo is dangerous. But there are few labor laws or OSHA regulations in port trucking. Port drivers work in literal “sweatshops on wheels.”  

And here’s the kicker: it is illegal for “independent contractors” to join or organize a union. So port drivers cannot engage in collective bargaining to improve their working conditions.

The California Attorney General launched an investigation into the widespread illegal practice of misclassifying employees and in February, announced judgment against five port companies who deprived their workers of the benefits they are entitled to under state law. But there are thousands of trucking companies operating in the state and across the nation.

That is why a broad blue-green alliance of port truck drivers, environmentalists, union members, faith leaders and community activists joined together in advocating for a solution to make the industry adhere to stricter environmental and operational standards. With strong leadership from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Port of LA was the first in the nation to adopt a comprehensive and sustainable Clean Truck Program requiring trucking companies to legitimately hire their workforce and take responsibility for fleet modernization and maintenance. Within months, 2,000 of the oldest, dirtiest rigs were banned from the Port and nearly 6,000 clean-burning vehicles were put into service. Immediately, there were dramatic air quality improvements. Port drivers were beginning to enjoy the benefits of employee status until the Beltway-based American Trucking Association (ATA), an industry special interest, stalled full implementation of the program in court. The case is scheduled to go to trial in April. 

The ATA's litigation has stymied efforts to address environmental, public health and labor problems at other ports including Oakland, Seattle and New York/New Jersey.  As a result, the ports are being forced to institute insufficient programs that rely on taxpayer subsidies and port drivers to pay for transitioning to a clean truck fleet.  Drivers are going into debt and bankruptcy to keep their trucks maintained and in compliance with new State port emission standards. Hundreds of other drivers have given up and joined the ranks of the unemployed.

The ATA which is also fighting climate-change legislation, claims Los Angeles’ EPA award-winning program is pre-empted by the laws that deregulated the trucking industry in the 1970s and '80s. The Teamsters, Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alameda Labor Council, LA County Federation of Labor, South Bay Labor Council, and other organizations united in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports are calling on Congress to update outdated Federal Motor Carrier statutes to ensure that ports may set and enforce solutions to 21st century challenges. The mayors of LA, Oakland, New York, Newark, Seattle and Broward County, FL have joined the call.

Please join the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports and be a part of this exciting cutting edge movement to clean the air and create good, green U.S. jobs.

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