Labor’s Clean-Air Divide

Labor’s Clean-Air Divide

For several months, officers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals in Southern California have been telling transportation industry gatherings, especially meetings that attract cargo interests from other parts of the country, the union wants them to make Los Angeles and Long Beach their preferred gateway.

The nation’s busiest container complex has been battered by the global trade recession, but also by a diversion of cargo to other ports because of Southern California’s aggressive environmental efforts and the penchant of the Port of Los Angeles to dabble in labor politics.

Longshoremen are suffering more than most because the cargo diversion has translated to a loss of job opportunities. Cargo volume in Los Angeles-Long Beach was down almost 20 percent in 2009, and ILWU man-hours were down a similar amount.

“My feeling is we’ve got to get back to job creation — for ourselves, for the terminal operators, for the city and for the state,” said Peter Peyton, president of ILWU Local 63, the marine clerks’ local.

In this environment, the normally vocal ILWU has remained silent on an important labor issue in Southern California. The Teamsters union, aligned with environmental and community organizations in the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, is promoting a clean-trucks program at the Port of Los Angeles, but the coalition opposes a conflicting plan in effect at the neighboring Port of Long Beach.

The Los Angeles plan attempts to mandate the use of employee drivers, which would make it easier for the Teamsters to organize the drivers, most of them independent contractors. Frustrated by court rulings that the mandate violates federal law because it amounts to economic regulation of trucking, Los Angeles is lobbying in Washington for an amendment to a federal pre-emption statute that bars state and local entities from regulating interstate commerce.

The amendment would open the door to unionizing harbor truck drivers across the nation, and this effort by Los Angeles also displeases importers and exporters.

Long Beach’s clean-trucks program, denounced by the Teamsters-environmental coalition, allows the use of owner-operators, and Long Beach has distanced itself from Los Angeles, refusing to join its lobbying effort to give ports regulatory power over harbor trucking.

Absent in the heated debate until now, the ILWU sent a sharp message when George Lujan, president of ILWU Local 13 in Southern California, appeared in local advertisements saying Local 13 supports the Long Beach clean-trucks program.

Lujan said his participation in the Long Beach advertising campaign was meant only to demonstrate the ILWU supports clean-air efforts and believes the Long Beach plan is working. Lujan said he is not critical of Los Angeles or the Teamsters.

The ILWU and the Teamsters have maintained a professional relationship even though their jurisdictional efforts hold the potential for conflict. Several years ago, the powerful unions reached a compromise in which the ILWU has jurisdiction over trucking jobs involving the transfer of containers between marine terminals. The Teamsters’ jurisdiction begins when the truck exits port property for delivery to off-port locations.

The clean-trucks controversy, however, has cost longshore jobs. Cargo interests last October told a footwear distributors meeting in Huntington Beach, Calif., with representatives from the ILWU present, that they were avoiding Southern California ports whenever possible because they never know what Los Angeles is going to do next.

The ILWU’s Southern California locals, meanwhile, are all about job creation these days. “Six months from now, this sector will be growing. Los Angeles and Long Beach should be a beneficiary of this growth,” Local 63’s Peyton said.

And the ILWU pointedly is not a member of the Teamsters-supported Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. “Both ports are doing well in their clean-air programs,” Peyton said. However, the ILWU wants to combine pollution-reduction efforts with an expanded cargo base.

The ILWU and their employers have often butted heads on port issues, but the clean-air efforts in Southern California seem to have brought the two sides together.

In a presentation last week to the National Retail Federation, Peter Keller, president of NYK Line (Americas), said the shipping industry supports the Long Beach plan but is puzzled by Los Angeles’ relentless support for employee drivers. “It belies understanding as to why only an employee can drive a clean truck,” Keller said.

Peyton said in his conversations with terminal operators in Southern California, the ILWU is exploring policies that would lead to growth. “We’ve got to do what is necessary to regain market share,” he said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com.