Score another round for independent truckers, in their legal battle against Southern California's two biggest containerports. But the bout is far from over.
The Port of Long Beach (www.polb.com) has reached a settlement with the American Trucking Associations (www.truckline.com), in which it has agreed to scrap aspects of a plan that critics charged would have hindered the ability of owner-operators to serve port facilities.
The mandate was part of a Clean Air Action Plan (www.cleanairactionplan.org) by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles (www.portoflosangeles.org) to ban older, dirtier trucks from San Pedro Harbor. The idea is to prevent access by any truck that doesn't meet the 2007 emissions standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Given that the newest models are around 90 percent cleaner than the ones they aim to replace, the program promises to have a dramatic impact on local air quality.
All well and good, except that the Port of Los Angeles decided to tack on a requirement that owner-operators give up their independence and go to work for companies that are granted concessions to serve the harbor area. The companies would own the trucks, with drivers demoted to the status of employees drawing a paycheck. While the Port of Long Beach didn't seek to ban owner-operators outright, its concession agreement would have essentially required them to apply "for permission to serve the port," argues Clayton Boyce, vice president of public affairs with ATA. They would also have had to "let the port see their financial condition, even if they were privately held." The plan further required truckers to file accident reports, vehicle-maintenance records and proof of health insurance, while giving hiring preference to existing or former port drivers.
The rules would have created "a tremendous burden of red tape," Boyce adds, and allowed the port to refuse an operating permit based on criteria that were "very nebulous."
Supporters of a concession structure argue that only established operators have the resources to replace their fleets with safe, modern equipment, including radio frequency identification technology. Which is an odd contention, given that the program also helps truckers to finance the purchase of new vehicles through imposition of a temporary fee on all truck trips to and from the docks.
The real reason behind certain aspects of the concession plans appears to be the desire of the Teamsters Union to organize Southern California draymen, something it can't do if the drivers are self-employed. Critics of the plan, including the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (www.pmsaship.com), have referred to it as a union "power grab." Roughly 93 percent of the 14,000 drayage drivers serving San Pedro Harbor are owner-operators, according to Boyce.
ATA went to court last year and obtained an injunction against that portion of the Los Angeles clean-plan which includes the employee mandate. Aspects of the Long Beach concession agreement were also put on hold at that time.
The rest of the plan has been in effect since October 2008, "and both ports say they are years ahead of schedule in replacing older trucks," says Boyce. Another oddity, since the ports had previously insisted that the plan wouldn't work without the concession requirement. A decision by the U.S. District Court of Appeals on that element is expected sometime in March 2010.
Its settlement with ATA, the Port of Long Beach agrees to scrap the concession structure in favor of a system under which truckers register with the port, equip their vehicles with RFID tags and meet all federal, state and local environmental and safety standards. Trucks would be subject to inspection while on port property. All drivers must possess a valid commercial license and Transportation Worker Identification Card, and be fully insured. What they won't have to do is open their books to the port, another provision that opponents claimed was a blatant move to pave the way for Teamster organizers.
The Port of Los Angeles remains determined to impose an employee mandate on local truckers. In a brief statement, spokesman Phillip Sanfield would say only that the port "is not a party to the settlement between ATA and the Port of Long Beach and remains in the litigation process. Because it's ongoing, we can't discuss the matter in any greater detail at this time."
The two neighboring mega-ports share much road and rail access to the waterfront, so it's difficult to see how they could maintain separate rules for local truckers. "That's going to be determined by the lawsuit," says Boyce. "Most of the concession plans have been enjoined and will be banned, we expect, when the final trial is held." The earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals found that it was "grossly unfair to take away the livelihood of thousands of owner-operators," he adds.
PMSA president John R. McLaurin argues that the employee mandate "doesn't have anything to do with clean air or reducing emissions." He questions how the Port of Los Angeles can be engaged in a vigorous marketing program to cargo owners at the same time that it's "alienating that same potential customer base by pursuing this policy." The port's behavior, he claims, is "bipolar."
Opponents of an employee mandate for truckers are worried that the idea will spread to other port regions. According to the Los Angeles Times, the idea has received support from mayors Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, Cory Booker of Newark, N.J. and Ron Dellums of Oakland, Calif. So far, says Boyce, no such language has appeared in Oakland's clean-air plan. Programs being developed for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. are similarly "acceptable ... to the industry in general," he says.
For now, at least. Boyce says Oakland and Los Angeles are pushing for passage of a federal law that would cancel out any objections based on arguments of unconstitutionality.
Meanwhile, Southern California trucks are getting cleaner without the need to punish independent drivers. McLaurin says the vehicle replacement program is so ahead of schedule that the ports might retire the program's per-trip funding fee earlier than planned. (Indeed, the Port of Los Angeles just announced that it was phasing out its Clean Truck Fee for all cargo owners using 2007 emission-compliant trucks to move local or intermodal cargoes.) By the end of this year, port officials have predicted, 80 percent of the trucks serving San Pedro Harbor will be clean vehicles. Which raises the question: other than the Teamsters, who needs an employee mandate?
(Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that the Port of Long Beach's proposed concession agreement would have banned owner-operators from port facilities.)
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