I am one of the activists who participated in the the labor-environment rally and march on Tuesday, 7/22 from downtown Oakland to the Port. I asked V if she was planning to cover the event, and since even she can’t cover everything that goes on in Oakland, she invited me to submit a guest post. I figured I wouldn’t get this chance twice, so here goes.
If you didn’t catch it, there was a labor-environment rally on 7/22 from downtown Oakland to the Port. The rally was under the motto “Good Jobs, Clean Air” (or vice versa, depending on your point of view) and was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. This is a group of pro-labor, social justice, and environmental activist organizations that have joined together to demand a change in the current structure for goods movement at the major U.S. seaports. At issue is the freedom of truckers to organize.
There was a great deal of noise as we passed through “Old Oakland” on our way to the Port. Note to the organizers: the air was not particularly clean during this rally. Anyways, it was loud, noisy, and people were in a good mood. It was something new for me to walk alongside Teamsters, EBASE, ACORN, and other groups. But that probably captures the essence of the “Blue/Green Coalition” – the Labor/Environmental alliance. In this case, environmentalists like me (I volunteer with Sierra Club) are collaborating with activists who are louder and “dirtier” (like the Teamster trucks lining our march) than we generally are.
The coalition has have had some success in southern California getting the Ports there to agree to restructure the Port trucking model. Known as the Clean Trucks Program, the LA Harbor Commission has adopted a plan to reduce harmful diesel pollution by 80 percent over the next five years and give port drivers the right to form a union. It’s important to note that Mayor Villaraigosa was actively involved and supportive in L.A., and that the plan had the backing of 10+ years of community organizing behind it. We are hoping for the same thing in Oakland. It was encouraging to see Mayor Dellums join Mayor V. on a podium prior to the rally and voice his own support (I was not at the rally yet when he spoke, and thus cannot comment on Mayor Dellums’ remarks). At the Port afterwards, where I was standing behind the speakers, a number of speeches were made while we all stood in the sun and (most) shouted encouragement. I recall a lot of enthusiasm (and response) to Assembly member Sandre Swanson’s remarks in particular, saying that “street heat is sometimes necessary.” Others who spoke were Port Commissioners Margaret Gordon and Tony Iton, Sharon Cornu from the Alameda County Central Labor Council, Jerry Brown, Loni Hancock and Teamsters Vice President Chuck Mack, to name a few. The mayors V. and D. were conspicuously absent on this end of the rally.
So you may ask, what’s all the noise about? Aren’t we all dependent on the Port as an engine for the local economy? Well, yes, it’s true, there are a lot of jobs associated with our Port. If you take one of their free harbor tours, the docent will tell you that 25% of all jobs in Oakland depend either directly or indirectly on Port activity (it’s hard to verify this claim, but according to their own economic impact report (PDF), the Port’s jobs effect is significant). And it’s also true that impending environmental regulations do cost money and in some cases, can cause jobs in one particular sector to be lost. However, some activists, and I would include myself in this group, feel that we don’t need to be pitting jobs vs. environmental regulations to achieve a net benefit to the community.
Currently, on any given day, hundreds of truck drivers arrive at the Port to wait in long lines of idling trucks to pick up a load for delivery somewhere around the country. Many if not most of these drivers are classified as “independent owner/ operator,” and are at the bottom of the transportation food chain. They are not unionized, and cover all their own expenses, including health care and insurance. Estimates I have read from EBASE are between $8 and hour to $10 an hour (PDF) in take-home pay for these truckers after they subtract expenses. Meanwhile, the California Air Resources Board, is requiring that these owner/operators retire or replace (PDF) all pre-1994 engines, and additionally outfit their trucks with diesel emission control devices. The owner/operator is then faced with the decision to go deeper into debt, to get out of the business, or to break the law. We in the coalition fear that these choices are not acceptable, and that the situation is so bad, both for the community, and for the drivers, that a new solution that mandates an employee model for Port drivers is the best step. If this means that the drivers are “free to organize” – so be it. If it means our hairdryers (if you use one) cost $12 instead of $10 – then that’s good. In the new scenario, where truckers get paid a living wage plus benefits, we’d be paying some of the “externalized cost,” in terms of health care and environmental degradation, associated with the goods movement to bring us our hairdryers, radios, TVs, apples, T-shirts and washing machines. And, due to the increase in cost of labor, shippers will no longer have any incentive to hold so many drivers idling in a queue to pick up their containers. At least, that is the idea. Time will tell if this turns out to be true. I remain hopeful.