Good Jobs, Clean Air! Rally backs clean, safe ports plan

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OAKLAND, Calif. — If a broad coalition of labor and community activists, health advocates and environmentalists has its way, pollution from ports around the country will be cut drastically in coming years, while at the same time, a group of port workers wrongly called “independent contractors” will gain a living wage and benefits.

The Port of Los Angeles has already approved a Clean Trucks Program, and in the coming months, Oakland could become the nation’s second port to do so.

“This idea of good jobs and clean air, it’s based on the ideas that made America great,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told over 2,000 labor, environmental and community activists here as they prepared to march to the port July 22.

As international trade increases, Villaraigosa said, “we want to make sure the people who move those goods move them with jobs that pay a living wage, a union wage that has health care and pension benefits. Business has said for a long time, what’s good for business is good for America,” he added. “But what’s good for labor is good for America as well.”

Oakland Mayor Ronald Dellums thanked his LA counterpart “for his guts, his heart, his courage, his integrity,” and for being “the first mayor in America” to stand up for such a program. He vowed that Oakland will be second.

The neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together are the nation’s largest container port, and Oakland ranks fourth.

The California Air Resources Board says port-related pollution causes 2,400 deaths statewide each year. Rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases soar in neighborhoods near the ports, while dock workers and truck drivers constantly breathe diesel soot.

Though their trucks are among the big polluters, port drivers themselves can’t afford to buy and maintain low emission trucks. Forced into “independent contractor” status since deregulation in 1980, they earn as little as $10 and $11 an hour.

The LA Port Commissioners voted in March for a phased-in Clean Trucks Program under which all trucks must meet 2007 emissions standards by January 2012. Trucking firms must gradually hire drivers as employees, taking over responsibility to maintain the trucks. The workers will then have the right to organize.

The LA City Council and Mayor Villaraigosa support the program. Long Beach, which started planning in tandem with LA, split off earlier this year and okayed a program under which drivers will continue as independent contractors.

The Oakland action was organized by the Clean and Safe Ports Coalition of dozens of labor, environmental, health, community and faith-based organizations. The California Labor Federation made the demonstration part of its biennial convention. Among dozens of unions participating were many Teamster locals. Marchers also included participants from Miami, New York/New Jersey and Seattle, where Clean and Safe Ports coalitions are starting to work, as well as from LA/Long Beach.

Luis Jimenez, an Oakland Port driver for 12 years, told the World that after paying insurance, diesel fuel, repairs and registration fees, he has almost nothing left. While fuel costs soar, he said, rates the trucking firms pay have stayed the same “for seven or eight years.”

Under new state air quality standards, Jimenez must replace his 1992 truck by the end of next year. But, he said, even with programs to help the truckers financially, he can neither afford to buy a new, “clean” truck or to retrofit his current truck with a new filter.

“The trucking companies have saved a great deal of money through our being classified as independent contractors,” he said. “They don’t pay health insurance, disability, workers compensation or any benefits. It’s time for them to give back some of what they have taken.”

Victor Uno, first vice president of the port commissioners and business agent of IBEW Local 595, said commissioners know the current “broken” port trucking system contributes to unacceptable diesel emissions, polluted air and other health impacts on residents and workers. “Truck drivers are integral to our port operations,” he said. “They must be on the road to a good wage, union health care benefits, and a good union job.”

James Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters union, pledged continuing wholehearted support. “The drivers want to have what we have, good wages, health care, pensions,” he said. “It’s going to be a long march, but we’re moving as never before, and we’re going to get the job done,” he said.

The issue could be decided in Oakland before the end of the year, according to Doug Bloch of Oakland’s Clean and Safe Ports coalition. Bloch called attention to a petition on www.oakland.cleanandsafeports.org, urging the Port of Oakland to adopt the plan.

But challenges lie ahead, as the Wal-Marts, Targets and big trucking companies show their displeasure at having to share some of their profits. The American Trucking Association said this week it will file a lawsuit against both LA and Long Beach, despite the differences in their Clean Trucks programs.

mbechtel @pww.org