Drive to Clean Up Ports Caught Up in Trucking Turf Battle

Depending on whom you ask, the dispute over the Port of Los Angeles’ Clean Trucks Program is either a valiant fight against trucking companies blocking environmental progress, or a back-door attempt by the Teamsters to greenwash the forced unionization of the port.

At issue is whether the port, one of the nation’s busiest, can ban independent, owner-operated trucks, and require trucking companies to use their own trucks, driven by full-time employees.

The Port of Los Angeles argues independent truckers cannot afford to buy and maintain the newer, cleaner trucks required under the initiative, and that such costs should be borne by the trucking companies.

Opponents say the Port is simply operating at the behest of the Teamsters in banning owner-operators, because those full-time employees would likely be unionized. They also point out that, by the port’s own admission, the Clean Truck Program has been wildly successful without the ban, achieving a 80 percent reduction in truck emissions just two years after it began.

“This is not at all about the environment,” said Clayton Boyce, VP for Public Affairs at the American Trucking Association. “The ATA has supported the environmental aims of the clean truck program 100 percent.” The ATA successfully sought a suspension of the ban in court last year, and a final ruling is expected later this year.

But Barbara Maynard, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which supports the ban, said independent operators can’t keep up with the new environmental regulations. “There are guys going bankrupt…people who have lost their homes, who are required to own these $200,000 trucks they can’t afford.”

The port and its supporters point to a study by the Boston Consulting Group that shows relying on independent owner-operators undermines the long-term sustainability of the Clean Trucks Program.

But Art Wong, spokesperson for the nearby Port of Long Beach, said their port was able to see similar reductions without “having to re-regulate the industry.”

“To have to employ drivers or not have to employ drivers didn’t seem to figure in the improvement of air quality,” Wong said.

Shipping ports are notoriously polluting. Traditionally, making the short hauls from ports to warehouses, known as drayage, is where the oldest, most polluting trucks go to die. The Clean Trucks Program uses a combination of financial carrot and regulatory stick to replace these older trucks, and there are plans underway at other ports around the country to implement similar programs.

But the dispute in Los Angeles risks miring that national effort in a highly contentious debate over interstate commerce that goes back decades. At issue is a 1980 law that deregulated the trucking industry and allowed for the growth of independent owner-operators.

Maynard of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which receives union funding, said independent owner-operators are really just employees with no rights. “An employee’s an employee no matter what you call em,” she said.

The ATA’s Boyce took a different view. “The Teamsters try to confuse people by saying owner operators are drivers and nothing more,” he said. “But essentially they are small businesses.”

On Wednesday, a Congressional Subcommittee on Transportation heard all sides, and is considering possible legislation to address the issue. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the subcommittee, is drafting a bill that would put the onus for maintaining the trucks on the companies, not the truckers, according to a spokesperson.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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