A dark future for trucking

A dark future for trucking

Last week's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder refusing to halt the truck-concession plans set to take effect at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach did not settle much, if anything, in this epochal battle between the trade community and organized labor. But it did pull back the curtains far enough to reveal one possible future for Los Angeles, Long Beach and perhaps other ports around the country. And for those whose cargo has made LA-Long Beach and other ports into the economic assets they are today, it isn't a pretty sight.

At this point, one thing is abundantly clear: It is a virtual certainty that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will accomplish their goal of slashing the air pollution caused by old, dirty trucks hauling containers and thereby make peace with the local community so that capacity expansion can resume.

In seeking to halt the ports' truck-concession plans, the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference of the American Trucking Associations did not take issue with the ports' plans to ban the oldest trucks in the harbor as of Oct. 1 and impose a $35-per-TEU fee on beneficial cargo owners when boxes are moved by any but the newest and cleanest trucks available on the market.

Thus, the oldest trucks -- the 2,000 that are pre-1989 vintage out of the nearly 17,000 operating in the harbor -- are history as of Oct. 1. All trucks older than 2007 will disappear in stages by the beginning of 2012. In addition, new California clean-air rules that take effect at the end of 2009 will drive an additional nail through the coffin of dirty trucks operating at LA-Long Beach.

Although many details remain unclear and the situation remains fluid, the bottom line is this: Within five or six years, the ports will achieve their goal of greatly reducing toxic emissions from harbor drayage. As a result, they will obtain a tool they desperately need but do not currently have: the ability to state on environmental impact reports in support of expanding marine terminals that the resulting increase in truck traffic will not further foul the air.

But that is only part of a future that, after last week's ruling, may be in the offing. The concession plans under which truckers would have to obtain licenses from the ports in order for their trucks to cross terminal gates will take effect at both ports on Oct. 1 unless Judge Snyder reverses herself (which she held out a slim possibility of doing) or she is reversed on appeal.

That makes for a sobering scenario: The plans take effect, meaning that truckers must comply with a laundry list of financial and operational requirements including, at Los Angeles, ensuring that 20 percent of drivers are company employees by the end of 2009 and 100 percent are employees instead of owner-operators by the end of 2013. Separate from its attempts to obtain a temporary injunction, the ATA is challenging the concession plans in federal court.

Yet it won't be until next summer at the earliest that the case is heard and perhaps years until all appeals are exhausted. You can be certain the Teamsters will not wait until the ultimate legality of the plans has been determined to organize the employee drivers of the concessioned motor carriers. In practical terms, it may be irrelevant that the Long Beach plan doesn't have an employee mandate, because a trucking company arguably needs to be able to serve both ports to be competitive.

Imagine, then, if the ATA is ultimately proven right that the concession plans won't hold up in court -- as Judge Snyder herself suggested in her Sept. 8 opinion. There will be potentially dozens of trucking companies that by that time are employing at least a partially unionized work force. What happens then?

Harbor trucking has always been the bottom rung of the international supply chain. The fact that clean trucks are required in the harbor does not change basic industry reality in which steamship lines dictate trucking rates and will come down hard on the truckers for rate reductions when they themselves can't hold the line on rates, which is often. Low-cost nonunion operators, albeit ones in compliance with clean-trucks mandates, will return to the market.

Where does that leave the rest of the industry? How does a company de-unionize itself if forced by competition to be competitive in its labor costs? It will be no easy task, that's for sure.