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I must confess to being surprised by last month's U.S. District Court ruling in favor of the Clean Truck Program of the Port of Los Angeles. I guess I thought that the arguments against the port's concession setup, banning truck owner-operators from serving its docks, were so overwhelming that no rational judge would reject them. Of course I was wrong - at least for now.
Judge Christina A. Snyder upheld L.A.'s attempt to force independent drayage truckers to scrap their rigs and sign up with port-approved motor carriers as time-clock-punching employees. The official rationale for the program is that it's necessary to ensure safety, security and environmental responsibility. The real reason is a lot simpler: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters would like nothing more than to organize those thousands of Southern California drivers who are currently beyond its reach.
The union isn't shy about stating its aims. Chuck Mack, who chairs the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Trust, laid it all out at this year's Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference, produced by the Journal of Commerce. He called owner-operators serving the port "the most exploited truck drivers in the nation today." He said they were underpaid, lacking healthcare and worker's compensation protection. He even argued that they weren't independent contractors at all, in the sense that long-haul drivers are, because they can't negotiate rates or serve multiple companies. How much better their lives would be, he implied, if they were working for a big employer with a nice, fat Teamsters contract.
Certainly we can talk about the dire economic plight of independent truckers, and how it might be alleviated. But isn't this particular port initiative supposed to be about clean vehicles? It's not called the Unionized and Highly Paid Truckers Program, after all. Not at least in public.
To be sure, the Teamsters and the port make all the right arguments about how the concession agreement is needed to promote cleaner, greener trucks. At the TPM Conference, Mack unleashed a barrage of scary buzzphrases to evoke an image of environmental desolation at the Port of Los Angeles. He said the port is "a place where old trucks go to die." He said economic deregulation has caused an army of "fly-by-night" contractors to "spring up like weeds." He called the port a "diesel death zone."
Listening to him talk, you'd half expect to see Mad Max tearing along the docks in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But a curious thing has happened in the last couple of years. The trucks that haul containers to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have gotten a lot cleaner. That's because another part of the Clean Truck Program - one that wasn't challenged in court by the American Trucking Associations - requires the phasing out, by January of 2012, of any port truck that doesn't meet the 2007 emissions standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Also included is a user fee to help truckers finance the purchase of new, cleaner vehicles.
And it's worked. This summer, the Port of Los Angeles released its 2009 Inventory of Air Emissions, showing year-over-year drops of 37 percent in diesel particulate matter, 28 percent in nitrogen oxide and 36 percent in sulfur oxide emissions. The results are even more dramatic when compared with port pollution levels of 2005. "We are extremely pleased to see how effective the Clean Air Action Plan has been," port executive director Geraldine Knatz said in a statement. "The results show that the investments the Port and its customers have made in cleaner operations are delivering a healthy pay-off."
Port operations keep on getting greener, and the Clean Truck Program - minus the court-enjoined concession agreement - is a key reason why. Earlier this year, the initiative even earned a Chairman's Earth Day Award from the Federal Maritime Commission. FMC chairman Richard A. Lidinsky Jr. noted that the program had reduced truck emissions at the Port of Los Angeles by 70 percent since it took effect in October 2008. In fact, the vehicle-replacement program was said to be so far ahead of schedule that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were thinking about retiring the per-trip funding fee earlier than planned.
So much for arguments that owner-operators, driving their death vehicles through the smog of Los Angeles, must be banned from the docks. Yet here's Judge Snyder, dismissing arguments that the port's attempt to achieve that radical goal is preempted by federal law - specifically, the U.S. Constitution and the motor carrier provision of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994. She didn't seem bothered by the possibility that each port in the U.S. could impose its own restrictions on the right of local workers to choose their means of employment.
"Nobody should be mandated to be something they don't want to be," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of ATA's Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, at the TPM event. Apparently Judge Snyder disagrees. Drayage truckers, she writes in her decision, "can operate anywhere in California, including at other ports within the state, without signing [the Port of Los Angeles'] Concession Agreement. Instead, the agreement merely addresses the ability of drayage trucks to enter the Port's own private property for business purposes, not to drive generally on public highways." In other words, if you're an independent drayage trucker who doesn't like the new rules at one of the nation's busiest ports, tough luck. Go find work somewhere else.
What we have here is a classic case of mission creep, whereby a good idea becomes burdened by an ever-expanding agenda advanced by powerful interests - in this case, the Teamsters. Fortunately, Judge Snyder's ruling won't be the last word on the subject. ATA intends to appeal, and with any luck common sense will prevail at a higher level of our legal system.
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