A federal judge’s ruling upholding the concession requirements in the Port of Los Angeles clean-trucks program hardly brings the case closer to resolution. In fact, her decision is likely to trigger an appeal that could reach the Supreme Court.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder on Aug. 26 ruled the concession requirements, including the controversial provision requiring that drivers be motor carrier employees, do not violate federal law. If upheld on appeal, the requirement that motor carriers hire drivers as direct employees could open the door to Teamsters organizing of truck drivers in Los Angeles and nationwide.
The Teamsters union, while pleased by the ruling, is leaving nothing to chance. The union is still pursuing a legislative solution to a problem it has faced since Congress deregulated the trucking industry in 1980: How can the Teamsters demonstrate the owner-operators at the nation’s ports aren’t independent contractors as motor carriers maintain, but rather employees subject to organizing?
The American Trucking Associations, which filed the original lawsuit against Los Angeles in July 2008, is waiting for the port to issue a judgment form outlining how it will implement the concession requirements for harbor trucking companies. When Snyder approves the order, the appeals process will begin, said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the ATA’s intermodal conference.
The first appeal would come immediately if Snyder terminates the temporary restraining order she issued last year barring the port from implementing the concession requirements until the ATA lawsuit was heard on its merits. The ATA will appeal first to her, and if necessary, to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Whalen said.
The trucking group would seek a quick ruling because thousands of owner-operators who over the past two years took out leases for costly new clean trucks would be forbidden to call at the Port of Los Angeles because they are not employee drivers, Whalen said.
Shortly after the ruling, the port’s executive director, Geraldine Knatz, told the Board of Harbor Commissioners that while the decision was “an important victory for the Harbor Department,” she asked the board to delay enforcement at least until its next meeting in mid-September. “This will give staff the opportunity to recommend next steps, which may include reasonable extensions of time for compliance,” Knatz said.
In addition to siding with the port on the legality of the employee-driver mandate, Snyder upheld other concession requirements such as parking restrictions on trucks and motor carrier proof of financial responsibility. Such requirements are part of the port’s plan to attract larger, well-financed trucking companies with storage yards and employee drivers.
The ATA charged these concession requirements not only discriminate against owner-operators but also violate the pre-emption law that reserves for the federal government the power to regulate the rates, routes and services of motor carriers engaged in interstate commerce.
Snyder, in fact, affirmed the federal government pre-empts state and local entities in such regulatory matters. But she ruled for the Port of Los Angeles on its legal claim that it falls under an exception to the federal law because it is a “market participant.”
Los Angeles competes for cargo with other ports, port attorneys argued, and in order to expand and remain competitive, the port must satisfy environmental and community organizations that it is working to prevent port-generated pollution. Those groups blocked port expansion for seven years until the clean-trucks program was initiated.
Ensuring a viable trucking industry that can afford to purchase costly new low-polluting trucks is therefore a “business necessity,” the judge said in her written decision.
The Teamsters, joined in an array of labor, environmental and community groups known as the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, says the ruling paves the way for ports everywhere to accomplish their environmental and socioeconomic goals.
“The law says other cities have the right to follow in LA’s footsteps to rid our ports of dirty air and dead-end jobs once and for all,” said TJ Michels, a spokeswoman for the coalition.
The ATA was surprised Snyder based her ruling on the premise that the port is acting as a business proprietor and so qualifies for the market participant exception to federal pre-emption. Whalen noted the 9th Circuit has ruled a government entity qualifies as a proprietor only if it is acting in its own interest to efficiently procure needed goods and services, rather than promoting a general policy. The port does not contract for trucking services, Whalen noted.
In fact, in her earlier ruling involving the request for a temporary injunction, Snyder said, and the 9th Circuit agreed, the market participant defense carried little weight, Whalen said. He said the judge’s latest ruling is “curious” because it not only reverses her original position but also goes against what the 9th Circuit advised.
The Los Angeles clean-trucks case is not the only battlefield where the Teamsters’ organizing efforts are in play.
The Highways and Transit subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 5 heard testimony about clean-trucks leases in Southern California between motor carriers and owner-operators. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the subcommittee, questioned if the leases might demonstrate an employer-employee relationship, and asked for extensive records on the leases.
And Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., recently introduced his Clean Ports Act that would exempt ports from the motor carrier provisions of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act on issues relating to health and the environment, legislation supported by the Teamsters.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.