Jim Francis and the 2,000 other truck drivers who bring cargo to and from the Port of Oakland are linchpins of the made-in-Asia-and-consumed-in-America economy. But the trucks they use to transport that cargo belch diesel soot. That makes them a health hazard for residents of West Oakland, who are hospitalized for asthma twice as often as other county residents and — according to a new state study — three times as likely to get cancer.
In recent weeks, the port has made efforts to clean its air. Spurred by new state emissions standards and grant deadlines, port commissioners voted unanimously on March 18 to reduce diesel-related health risks 85 percent by the year 2020. That means most trucks will need some serious upgrades. Following in the footsteps of ports to Oakland's south, commissioners signaled they would raise money to help pay for those upgrades by imposing a per-container fee on shippers. But now officials are gearing up for the real fight — which will be over the employment status of truckers like Francis.
On one side: a clamorous Teamster-led organization of labor, environmental, religious, and community groups, which is pushing for companies to employ their drivers, rather than contract with them. On the other side: just about everybody else. And the drivers themselves? They're busy making a living.
As an employee of AB Trucking, Francis, 53, a heavyset man with a shock of white hair and a quick smile, earns $15.50 an hour, plus benefits. The economy's recent nosedive has meant less freight to haul, and occasionally he's been sent home at lunchtime. But Francis, who gets a pension after thirty years as a union plumber, doesn't complain about the fluctuating income. He's one of the lucky few. "The boys I feel sorry for are the guys who get paid by the load," he noted. "When they're slow, they don't get paid at all."
More than 80 percent of port truckers are such independent contractors, who own and maintain their own trucks, pay for their own gas, and, according to a survey last year by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, make an average $10 an hour after expenses.
The difference between employees and contractors was highlighted last December, when the state air resources board passed a rule requiring port trucks to meet stricter emissions standards by 2009. Francis doesn't have to worry about complying with the new regulations, which could cost from $10,000 for a diesel particulate filter to more than $100,000 for a new truck. That bill is his boss' responsibility.
On the other hand, self-employed drivers like Karim Eimen, an Afghani immigrant and father of three who's barely scraping by — he figures he grossed $35,000 and netted just $23,000 last year — have to work buying a new truck or retrofitting an older one into their budget.
"Right now, we've got a system where the steamship lines and the Wal-Marts and the Home Depots get to pass costs off onto immigrant truck drivers," said Doug Bloch, who heads up the coalition. "The average truck driver makes about $30,000 a year. They can't afford to own and operate a clean truck."
Tapping state funds to help drivers also doesn't cut it, said Bloch, who points out that Oakland residents' health problems already represent a public subsidy for shippers who are used to paying rock-bottom prices. "We need a solution that's comprehensive and sustainable," he added. "What happens ten years from now, when the trucks are breaking down and polluting? We go to the voters again, and ask for more money?"
Big business should pay for clean trucks, Bloch argues, and that means the port should require trucking companies to employ their drivers rather than contract with them. Then those companies, which number more than one hundred in Oakland, could be held responsible for meeting environmental standards and paying drivers a living wage. He admits that it will push up costs but says companies can pass those costs along to steamship lines, which in turn can raise shipping rates for retailers, including the box-store bad guys.
Eventually, according to this line of thinking, consumers will absorb the cost, paying more for everything from sneakers to cars to mangoes.
But while Bloch's coalition has organizers chatting up drivers at the port's lunch trucks and knocking on doors in West Oakland to gather support, shippers, retailers, and trucking company owners are defending the status quo. Chief among their arguments is the fact that Oakland, which contributes some $7 billion a year and 25,000 jobs to Northern California's economy, is a discretionary port. If prices rise too much, shippers can easily take their business to Long Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle-Tacoma, British Columbia, and soon, to East Coast ports through a newly widened Panama Canal.
"If we had to have employee drivers, we'd have to raise our rates 80 percent," said Scott Taylor of GSC Logistics, which handles nearly one sixth of the freight that moves through Oakland. "Cargo owners will say 'To heck with that,' — they're going to go elsewhere."
But the real fear among industry representatives is that Bloch's plan will lead to the Teamster-ization of port trucking. As employees, port truckers could choose to join the union — a choice they don't currently have, because anti-trust laws prohibit independent contractors from organizing. "Mandating we hire drivers is being promoted by organized labor for one reason, and one reason only: increasing membership so they can get more dues to line their coffers," Taylor said.
Curtis Whalen, a spokesman for the American Trucking Association, put it more bluntly:
"The Teamsters are a pain in the ass."
Union-led coalitions like Bloch's are lobbying at ports around the nation for the employee requirement. When they succeeded in getting a measure passed in Los Angeles in late March, the ATA's Whalen was quick to announce it would sue on the grounds that only the federal government can regulate the trucking industry.
Even Bill Aboudi opposes the employee requirement. He's the owner of AB Trucking who already employs Francis and twelve other drivers and who, by all accounts — even Bloch's — treats his guys well. He doesn't want a union shop, and he doesn't believe he'll be able to pass along higher costs to shippers. "The Teamsters have nothing to lose," he said. "But they're messing with my livelihood, my kids."
Port commissioners are cautiously considering Bloch's proposal, which has Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums' support, while they watch to see whether ATA wins its suit against Los Angeles. In March, they authorized spending $220,000 to hire a consultant to prepare a report on how an employee requirement would affect truckers, shippers, and the port at large. The report should be finished by June.
Meanwhile, not all independent truckers are living below the poverty line, and not all relish the thought of giving up the freedom they enjoy as self-employed businessmen. "I like to work for myself," said Jesus Lopez, 63, who says he'll keep driving his shiny blue 1995 Peterbilt "until he falls over." He works when he wants to, stays home when he feels like it. He grossed $136,000 last year and said he netted more than half that. "If you go work for someone, you're at their mercy. If you don't perform, they fire you."
But while activists and industry representatives make a point to join port committees and show up at meetings at its Jack London Square headquarters, truckers go to work hauling containers. They're barely part of the conversation about what should happen to their jobs, and in the often wonky, tedious back-and-forth about port policy, their voices are hard to hear.
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