Coming Clean

Coming Clean

The two are moving forward in lock-step: an intensifying campaign led by Los Angeles Mayor and former union leader Antonio Villaraigosa to alter federal transportation law to pave the way for port truckers to be unionized, and the simultaneous effort to conceal the true intent of the change by couching it in environmental terms.

But as hard as those who want port truckers to become a unionized work force under the Teamsters are pushing — and they are pushing hard — the more difficult it is to see the effort as anything other than a power grab by labor that will have a long-term, costly impact on international trade.
The reason is that it is impossible for Villaraigosa and his allies to answer the following question: Why is it necessary to, in effect, introduce a powerful union into the heart of international trade in order to achieve clean air around ports when local and state rules are already accomplishing the objective of cleaning the environment?

As the Port of Los Angeles at Villaraigosa’s direction fought its way up the federal courts to preserve its proposed rule that drivers calling its terminals be employees and thus eligible for union membership, its simultaneous effort to replace old, polluting trucks with newer and cleaner models was making steady progress.

For example, the port announced on July 29, that more than 58 percent of the containers moved through its terminals in June were handled by trucks that meet or exceed stringent 2007 Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards. And when a federal judge in April halted the employee-driver mandate and other aspects of the port’s concession plan, a port announcement said, “The heart of the clean-trucks program is in place and we’re moving full steam ahead with removing dirty diesel trucks from our communities and harmful pollutants from our air.”

Skepticism would appear to be justified about whether an employee mandate is needed to achieve air quality around ports. “Anybody that spends any modest amount of time looking at the issue would have to say, ‘Why do you need this (the employee mandate) if you are declaring success every other day?’ ” said Curtis Whelan, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference of the American Trucking Associations.

It was Whelan’s lawsuit that halted the employee-driver mandate among other aspects of a program the courts shot down as purely economic regulation of trucking. Those provisions include matters such as licensing, health insurance and a financial litmus test for truckers, all of which the courts said infringed on interstate trucking regulation.

What has been surprising since the court rulings in March and April, however, is Villaraigosa’s commitment to overturning the narrowly focused court rulings through a change in federal law. His resolve and advocacy stand in direct opposition to port stakeholders, including shippers who can divert their cargo to other ports.

The spin is that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, which pulled together elements of federal pre-emption of trucking regulation as interstate commerce, suddenly stands in the way not just of ports’ environmental objectives but also of their ability to tackle other problems such as congestion. Yet the law was never so much as mentioned in all the years of U.S. port expansion.

The Oakland Port Commission, in a July resolution supporting a change to the law, urged Congress to “expand the exceptions to FAAAA pre-emption to include environmental, security and congestion programs” (although Port Director Omar Benjamin said in an interview last week that the intent was not to impose an employee-driver mandate but rather to counter the lack of a national goods-movement strategy from Washington).

In a July 30 letter to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the Port of New York and New Jersey urged Congress to “expand the exceptions to the FAAAA to include ‘environmental’ and ‘congestion’ programs that will also enable ports to improve efficient utilization of port facilities.” It added, “Legislation to update the FAAAA will transform that law from an archaic prohibitive statute into a modem tool that will permit our nation’s ports to grow into the 21st century.”

All of this is led by Villaraigosa, at whose direction the Port of Los Angeles hired the lobbying group of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt to coordinate strategy and sent senior port officials into meetings with congressional leaders urging the change.

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, has sent letters to other port city mayors seeking their support and reportedly wants the issue placed on the agenda of the Conference of Mayors’ October leadership meeting in Seattle.

Let’s face facts: Ports have a thousand ways to mitigate congestion and poor air quality that are in no way stymied by federal law. A change to the law would accomplish one objective — making it easier to unionize port drivers. While some would benefit, this is the last thing the U.S. economy needs right now.

Peter Tirschwell is senior adviser for The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at