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Truckers Divided Over Cost of Cutting Emissions

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Jul 28, 2008

Editor's Note: The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach want to try and reduce diesel truck emissions which are blamed for heart disease, asthma and cancer. But as Oakland ponders whether to join the program, some contend its really a backdoor way to unionize truck drivers. Viji Sundaram is health editor for New America Media.

OAKLAND, Calif. Martha Cota and her four children all need inhalers and other medications to get through the day. Cota said thats because they live near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach - two of the nations busiest.

Every day, hulking 18-wheelers invade Californias highways and freeways, spewing out clouds of dark diesel exhaust that is blamed for keeping thousands of the states residents gasping for air.

Trucks, while essential to the states expanding economy, are highly noxious.

Tiny particles of sulfur-laden soot from diesel exhaust penetrate deep into the lungs, interfering with the absorption of oxygen. Diesel exhaust is blamed for elevated heart disease, asthma and even cancer.

Its not just people who live in the neighborhood. Port truckers, who spend the greater part of their time waiting in line to pick up containers, often with their engines idling, are also breathing in the exhaust. Many of them suffer from asthma as well.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to do something about it. Last March he signed into law the Clean Air Action Plan. Part of that plan is the Clean Trucks Program, which takes aim at the dirty trucks that enter and leave the Port of Los Angeles.

This is a streaming MP4 video - you'll need Quicktime 6 or later to view it.

Now Oakland, the third busiest port in the state is wondering whether to follow suit. On July 22, around 2,500 people from all across California rallied at the Port of Oakland to protest against its dirty air and demand good jobs for the estimated 2,000 truckers who haul goods in and out of the port.

The July 22 rally was co-sponsored by the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports in Oakland, an alliance of more than 30 Bay Area organizations, including some environmental and social justice groups. Other sponsors were the California Labor Federation and the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports in Oakland maintains Los Angeles' Clean Trucks Program will be good for Oakland too.

Villaraigosas program is designed to reduce diesel truck emissions by as much as 80 percent within five years by retrofitting or replacing old, polluting trucks with new, cleaner burning vehicles. It sets strict new emission goals, consistent with the requirements set by the California Air Resources Board.

The port says it will pay for retrofitting the trucks by levying a $35 fee for every container entering or leaving the port.

The program also sets in motion an asset-based employee model that shifts accountability to licensed trucking companies.

It will shift the burden from the truckers on to the companies, said Aditi Vaidya of the Oakland Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports.

But heres the catch.

The plan, scheduled to go into effect on October 1, could result in the extermination of 1,000 or so small trucking firms that currently serve the port. Under the program, only trucking companies that have truck drivers on their payroll can operate at the port. The companies will be given a five-year permit, or concession, in order to access the port.

What do companies like mine do? asked Fresno trucking company owner Jim Ganduglia who uses independent contractors. The state wants its hands in everything. I thought this was a free country.

The Clean Trucks Program approved by Los Angeles could also open the door to the Teamsters union, which cannot legally organize the owner-operated and contracted drivers operating at the ports. Truck company employees, unlike independent trucking contractors, can join a labor union.

Truckers are divided about the prospect.

I dont want to be part of a union, asserted Guatemalan native Carlos Jordan, a truck driver of 35 years, the last 18 of them at A.B. Trucking in Oakland.

He said that even though the spike in gas prices is hurting him, he enjoys his job because of the freedom it gives him, as well as being able to choose whom he works for and when.

I dont mind joining a union because the union will protect me, said Afghanistan-born Mohammed Asif, a truck driver in Oakland for the last six years. Working for a company would mean someone else will take care of my medical needs and my truck.

Currently truckers are responsible for all costs associated with their rigs. Most say they dont have health insurance because they cant afford it. Studies have shown that an Oakland trucker makes between $8 and $11 an hour after expenses, an assertion that some trucking company owners such as Rajiv Jain of the Oakland-based Bridgeport Transporting and Warehousing, Inc, challenge. Jain, who hires 35 independent truck contractors, maintained that a driver can take home at least $1,500 to $2,000 each week.

To improve the chances of getting the Clean Trucks Program enacted as a city ordinance, the Teamsters joined hands with environmentalists in the Los Angeles Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, as well as an immigrant rights group. Almost 94 percent of truck drivers in California are foreign-born, the bulk of them from Vietnam, India and Mexico. Conspicuous in the July 22 rally were scores of members of the Teamsters union in black T-shirts. A band belted out labor music.

But Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, maintained that the Good Jobs & Clean Air campaign by Oaklands Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports is not intended to unionize drivers, but just free truckers who are currently enslaved by a bad system.

Jain, owner of the Oakland-based Bridgeport, is not buying that.

What does clean air have to do with all that? Jain asked rhetorically. Private enterprise always works more efficiently. Let the port come up with an (acceptable) pollution level and implement it, then everyone will comply.

Jain maintained that the Oakland Coalition polled only a small number of drivers before concluding that the majority of them wanted to be unionized. He said that requiring all drivers to become employees could put him and other small trucking company owners out of business.

They are using the excuse of (wanting) clean air to get what they want, asserted Ganduglia, whose 60-year- old Fresno-based company uses independent trucking contractors to haul goods in and out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The concessions plan component of the Los Angeles and Long Beach program has set the cities on a collision course with the American Trucking Association (ATA). The plans will limit access to the ports to only those trucking companies that have entered into concession contracts approved by the port program administrator.

Julie Sauls, vice president of external affairs at the California Trucking Association, a member of the ATA, said the ATA is intending to sue Los Angeles for violating the federal interstate commerce law by impeding inter-state commerce.

We tried very hard to work with the port for a proposal that would be practical and workable, she said. But it looks like we have been left with no other alternative.

Why should a small entrepreneur who owns a clean new truck be prevented from entering the port just because hes not an employee?

Oakland port officials are waiting to see how the Los Angeles program unfolds. In the meantime, they are planning to hire a consultant to see what impact such a program will have on the Oakland trucking industry.

Related Articles:

Port Pollution Pervasive, Study Says

Truckers and the Pollution Dilemma in West Oakland

Truckers Can't Stop the Pollution Their Trucks Cause

Toxic Trucks -- Highway Smog Means Asthma For Low-Income Californians

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