Kent Lewandowski: Good Jobs, Clean Air

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.

11 thoughts on “Kent Lewandowski: Good Jobs, Clean Air

  1. dto510

    What I fail to see is how unionizing truck drivers at the Port will improve air quality. The Port is already working on a mode-shift from trucks to trains, won’t that do more for the environment than anything related to trucks? It’s great marketing for the Teamsters to claim that Good Jobs go along with Clean Air, but so fair that claim appears disingenuous. Is the environmental benefit just that there won’t be as much idling because there will be fewer trucks because labor is more expensive?

  2. Andy

    I am skeptical of this too. I fail to see how unionization should be the mode for these truckers to recover their expenses in meeting the legal requirement to upgrade their engines. What is the arguement for why owner operators should be allowed to unionize? How about a co-op?

    I still believe in the free market. If it cost more, then they should be able to charge more. If some can’t afford it, then, yes, they go out of biz, causing a shortage, thus driving up wages.

  3. justin

    I think the idea is that the higher wages unionized employees receive will enable drivers to afford to retrofit their trucks, thus helping the environment. To suggest that unionization is necessary for the environment here is not entirely accurate. To say that unionization will have additional health, safety, and conditions of employment benefits for drivers, while enabling retooling of trucks, is quite reasonable.

    I know Nadel has talked about a co-op of drivers. Needless to say, the status quo is unacceptable for everyone.

  4. mcas

    Currently, the truck drivers who make very low wages are individually responsible for meeting the ARB regulations. The basic argument is: Wal-Mart, Target, and other mutli-national corporations call ‘trucking companies’ who then call their ‘independent contractors’ who are the individual truck drivers.

    It’s not about ‘forming a union’– they are incorrectly classified as independent contractors, and, therefore, the people who actually profit off of the trucking industry (huge corporations) shield themselves from any accountability– since they can just blame the ‘independent contractors’…

  5. Rebecca Kaplan

    Thoughts on The relationship between “worker status” and the “environment”:

    The truck drivers, now called “independent contractors,” are paid by the load, not by the hour. So, there is no incentive by those with the power to do so, to reduce the hours spent by truck drivers idling while waiting in line. The current system, in which drivers spend hours waiting line, is incredibly economically inefficient, while at the same time causing excess diesel exhaust, and thus, damage to human health and the environment.

    So, everybody suffers from the current system. As the price of diesel fuel rises, the system becomes more and more costly and wasteful. But, the “waste” is externalized onto the truck drivers, (who have to pay more for fuel, and lose money due to waiting in line), and is externalized through the pollution and health impacts onto others.

    Everybody would be better off with a change that provided not only cleaner-burning engines and/or cleaner fuel, but also a better system for pick-up and delivery, which eliminated wasteful idling. If an employer were paying the truck drivers as employees by the hour, (and costs like fuel), it would immediately become obvious that the financially wise choice would be to fix the pick-up and delivery system to have less wasted time, and thus, less wasted fuel and less pollution.

    So, in this case, the “worker status” issue does connect to the environmental impact.

    Trains are also an important piece of the Port’s future, and I certainly support expanding rail freight. Because of the range of places where deliveries need to go, trains alone won’t solve all the problems, so, while working on expanding rail-based solutions, we will still need to improve the efficiency of the trucking pickup and delivery systems.

  6. dwhiting

    Independent contractors are not just getting squeezed out by expensive capital costs to replace older (pre-1994 trucks) and emissions control devices. Like the rest of the supply chain, they will also soon be facing expensive mandated security upgrades to include RFID. Although truckers’ compensation and benefits will improve, and the dirtiest polluting trucks (read oldest, least maintained) will be eliminated, it remains to be seen just how many independents can be expected to obtain a unionized company job.

    In the long run the Port itself would rather deal with union truck companies, esp. if the increased costs applies to similar rules at L.A. and Long Beach ports. Afterall every other tenant/vendor at the marine terminals is a union shop, what’s one more? As long as it doesn’t put the Port of Oakland at an cost competitive disadvantage to other west coast ports. One concern is once a rule is in place is that shortly, consolidation will occur amongst the trucking companies. In fact a Port consultant will be researching that and related questions very soon.

    R. Kaplan – as for improving air quality by reducing wait times, already all trucks are required to abide by anti-idling laws, which are largely ignored an unenforced. My guess is that despite elaborate policies to ensure terminal dispatchers are even handed in assigning loads, independent operators get the short shrift and therefore wait in long lines to gain a (perceived?) advantage back. Earlier this year CARB did an air quality study on the risk of cancer from particulate matter at the marine terminal/rail yard/I-880. Gate idling is a tiny miniscule compared to other sources

  7. Max Allstadt

    Andy, how can you say you don’t believe in unionization, but you believe in a free market? The freedom to unionize is part of freedom of association, no? If enough truckers get their act together and strike, they can use their freedom to associate and freedom to strike to leverage the free market to give them more money.

    I think believing in a free market is silly, because the entire concept is a cypher. A truly free market would include slaves, drugs, porn, insider trading, influence peddling and all sorts of things that are less hyperbole but just as dodgy. There is no free market. Maybe in Somalia. Even then, the powerful meddle and obstruct.

    If a group or individual has the power to control or regulate market forces to their advantage, they’ll do it. They are always free to try. Their opponents are always free to try to undo them. That’s your free market.

  8. Max Allstadt

    As for the port, I tell you what, Levi’s has threatened to sue if new regulations are imposed. I say if they do sue, we should bring kids with inhalers to their storefronts and plaza to hand out flyers until they back off. We could do a youtube spot with kids choking on jeans tied around their necks. If a little port surcharge is a threat to Levi’s existence, they’re already in too much trouble to save. If it’s a threat to a little of their shareholders’ capital gains, I don’t care. West Oakland has choked long enough.

  9. Max Allstadt

    I believe that Levi’s and friends were talking of a suit over new port fees to finance upgrading the fleet, no? Trucking was the beneficiary, not the victim.

    Am I crazy or is this some past issue that’s since died?

  10. V Smoothe

    I’m not aware of any such threat from Levi’s, and I wasn’t able to find any information about it from a few simple search attempts. If anyone has a link, please share it.