Roadblock for truck rules

Roadblock for truck rules

As the Southern California port truckers case has moved to the courtroom, the Federal Maritime Commission has moved into the driver's seat.

For months, it appeared that the FMC would stay out of the fight over labor and market-access issues surrounding the new clean-trucks rules at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The commission requested information and said it was monitoring the case, but otherwise kept quiet.

Industry executives, eager for the FMC to intervene in the case, began grousing that the regulatory agency had outlived its usefulness. At the same time, the FMC was feeling heat from supporters of the truck rules. Labor and environmentalist forces orchestrated a letter-writing campaign in which politicians and others urged the commission to steer clear.

This tug-of-war developed just as the FMC was struggling with problems of its own. Without a chairman since 2006, the commission was roiled by internal squabbling over personnel and policy. The lid blew off the controversy at a House subcommittee hearing last spring, when lawmakers grilled FMC members about reports of poor staff morale and lack of direction.

The House hearing was embarrassing to the FMC, and it may have had an effect on what's happened since. Coincidentally or not, the commission's interest in the Southern California trucks case seems to have picked up since lawmakers suggested that the agency wasn't active enough.

Last month, the FMC came out strongly against the ports' concession rules. The commission's intervention is bad news for the Teamsters and environmentalists. These groups have been the primary backers of the ports' requirements that harbor truckers obtain operating concessions -- and in the case of Los Angeles, switch from owner-operators to employee drivers.

A federal judge in Washington will hear arguments on Dec. 5 on the FMC's request for an injunction against the clean-trucks rules. It was the first time the commission had sought such an injunction since the agency was given the authority by the 1984 Shipping Act.

Meanwhile in California, the American Trucking Associations is asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule that the concession requirements are an illegal local attempt to regulate interstate commerce -- an argument that the Los Angeles district court said has merit. In that same case, the National Association of Waterfront Employers is asking the courts to send the clean-trucks case to the FMC, the regulatory agency with expertise in the maritime affairs.

What all this means is that chances look increasingly slim that the ports' requirements for operating concessions and employee drivers will pass legal muster. An FMC victory in the Washington case could be a knockout blow. So would an ATA victory in the 9th Circuit. And so could a court ruling that sends the case to the FMC.