If Congress decides to restructure harbor trucking this fall and expose the industry to unionization by the Teamsters, it will do so with eyes wide open.
A furious lobbying blitz led by the Port of Los Angeles is generating an equally determined effort by the transportation industry to educate Congress on what is at stake in a proposal to strip away one element of federal trucking oversight.
Federal law flowing from constitutional provisions regarding interstate commerce detail federal government pre-emption authority in matters relating to interstate commerce, including harbor trucking. Three major ports — Los Angeles, Oakland and New York-New Jersey — are urging Congress to amend the law so that port authorities can regulate harbor trucking.
The ports are advancing clean-trucks programs, and say existing law bars them from ensuring that old, polluting trucks are barred from ports because ports do not have a direct contractual relationship with harbor truckers.
The Port of Los Angeles, in written comments, said an April 29 ruling by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles specifically enjoins the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach from “enforcing the truck ban and all environmental provisions contained in the clean-trucks programs” launched by the Southern California ports on Oct. 1, 2008.
The preliminary injunction, which followed a similar ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, outlawed a provision in the Los Angeles clean-trucks concession program that mandates the use of employee drivers by harbor trucking companies along with other provisions the port said were necessary for safety and security.
The employee-driver mandate was intended to open the door to unionization of independent owner-operator drivers by the Teamsters. Under federal law, unions cannot organize independent contractors, but they can organize companies with direct employees.
Los Angeles hired the Gephardt Group in Washington — the lobbying shop run by former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt — to convince members of Congress that in order to be successful in reducing pollution, ports must have authority to regulate harbor trucking for purposes of the environment, security and congestion relief.
When news of the lobbying firm’s involvement in the clean-air issue was re-ported, two dozen industry organizations led by the Waterfront Coalition and the National Retail Federation launched their own education efforts.
Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition, which represents many national retailers and large importers, said the ports, along with a coalition of labor, environmental and health organizations, are attempting to convince Congress that port control of harbor trucking is essential to clean air. “This is the big lie. It’s absolute nonsense,” Lanier said.
Shipper groups and transportation companies were not surprised Los Angeles and Oakland linked clean air with labor issues because many businesses consider West Coast ports hyperactive on environmental matters and labor issues, even at the risk of losing business.
However, industry groups did not expect New York-New Jersey to join the fight. East Coast ports are preparing for the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal, and those ports view labor disruptions and ultra-strict environmental actions at West Coast ports as setting up the East Coast for a bonanza of cargo. “We were stunned by what New York did,” Lanier said.
But next door to Los Angeles, Long Beach took a public stance against its neighbor in a statement to cargo interests. “The Port of Long Beach is not a part of these efforts” and prefers to work with its customers on the competitive issues facing the port, said Alex Cherin, managing director of trade relations and port operations.
New York-New Jersey spokesman Ron Marsico said only that the East Coast’s largest port supports the amendment because the port authority wants to keep its options open as it develops a clean-trucks program.
Omar Benjamin, executive director at Oakland, said that port is not part of any coordinated effort by ports but believes federal law prohibits the port from banning noncompliant trucks, and it wants clear legal authority to do so. “That’s the type of certainty we’re looking for,” Benjamin said.
Curtis Whalen, executive director of the American Trucking Associations’ Intermodal Conference, said the claim that there are barriers to banning polluting trucks is “absolutely false.”
Whalen said the district and appellate courts clearly enjoined only the business elements of the clean-trucks plans and allowed the environmental measures to stand. Los Angeles’s effort to draw new limits on federal jurisdiction under the guise of environmentalism is “typical of the misrepresentation they have been engaging in,” he said.
The strategy of the ports and environmentalists was evident in a letter from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club to U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. They said the port exemption to federal pre-emption would create a contractual relationship between ports and motor carriers, allowing ports to require that truckers properly maintain their vehicles and report on truck emissions. Ports could legally audit those reports and ban dirty trucks.
Industry leaders note the California Department of Transportation already requires such reporting and performs regular vehicle inspections under its BIT program. Also, the California Air Resources Board requires thorough reporting of all emissions information for its Drayage Truck Registry.
“There is no need to amend (federal law) because California already has strict compliance requirements,” said Patty Senecal, California legislative representative for the International Warehouse Logistics Association.
Interests favoring local control are careful not to mention unionization of harbor truckers. Fred Potter, director of the Teamsters Port Division, said the “arcane, 30-year-old law” hinders the efforts of Los Angeles and other ports to protect workers and residents from fixing the “highly polluting, broken port trucking system.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supports the port’s clean-air plan. In a July 2 letter to fellow mayors, he urged the Los Angeles clean-trucks plan “become a national model and leading initiative for the United States Conference of Mayors.”
He did not mention the proposed amendment to federal law or the employee-driver mandate in Los Angeles’s original clean-trucks plan. However, industry organizations note Villaraigosa, a former labor activist, is close to the Teamsters and in 2006 received a $500,000 contribution for a ballot measure known as Proposition S from the organization Change to Win. The Teamsters union is a member of that group.
The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce is concerned Los Angeles’s activist stance will drive business from the Southern California ports. In an Aug. 27 commentary, President Randy Gordon told Los Angeles to “stop the bullying.” Los Angeles is pushing the amendment so the port can have greater control over trucking. Los Angeles wants to prevent independent truckers from operating at the port complex, a move that will “lead to full unionization of all truckers,” he said.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.