A federal court of appeals on Monday struck down a controversial employee-driver mandate in the Port of Los Angeles clean-truck program, dealing a severe blow to Teamsters’ effort to use the environmental program to unionize harbor truck drivers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit left in place other concession requirements in the Los Angeles clean-truck program that pertain to safety and truck maintenance. That makes it difficult for the port to determine whether it should pursue a costly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Striking down the Los Angeles employee-driver mandate was the major target of the American Trucking Associations when it filed its suit against the city and the port more than two years ago.
“It is a clear win on the employee mandate. We’re certainly very pleased by the decision,” said Curtis Whalen, executive director of ATA’s intermodal conference.
As part of its clean-truck program, which is intended to reduce harmful diesel emissions by more than 80 percent, Los Angeles included a requirement that harbor trucking companies hire drivers as direct employees. The port’s reasoning is that in order to sustain a clean-truck program over the years, the burden of purchasing and maintaining expensive new trucks cannot be placed on the shoulders of relatively low-paid drivers.
The majority of drivers at U.S. container ports are owner-operators, also known as independent contractors. By law, independent contractors cannot be unionized. Labor unions can, however, organize direct employees, so the employee mandate in the Los Angeles program was an attempt to pave the way for unionization of the drivers.
In its ruling, the 9th Circuit wrote even though the port is attempting to promote stability in the harbor trucking services, it can not seek to achieve that goal “by unilaterally inserting itself into the contractual relationship between motor carriers and drivers.”
Los Angeles must decide now whether to appeal the ruling, and a port spokesman said legal staff is analyzing the options. “We are pleased that almost all aspects of our concession program have again been upheld,” said Geraldine Knatz, the port’s executive director.
The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which represents 150 labor, environmental and community organizations, including the Teamsters, said the employee-driver mandate is a key component of the Los Angeles clean-truck program. Eliminating the employee mandate, “if upheld, will have devastating consequences for working families and port communities plagued by dirty air and dead-end jobs,” the coalition stated.
The neighboring Port of Long Beach had already reached an out-of-court settlement with ATA in which its clean-truck program requires truck registrations and similar concessions, but does not have an employee-driver mandate. Long Beach noted after Monday’s ruling some 10,000 clean, compliant trucks have been entered into service since 2008 without an employee-driver mandate.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which participated in the case on the side of the Port of Los Angeles, expressed a similar concern that without the employee mandate, the sustainability of the clean-truck program over time will be jeopardized. “Absent the employee mandate, motor carriers will force drivers to shoulder the costs, and the environmental benefits will be at risk,” said Melissa Lin Perrella, NRDC staff attorney in Los Angeles.