Why trucks may sink trade

Why trucks may sink trade

Talk all you want about East Coast ports gaining in Asian trade; they are, slightly, but Los Angeles-Long Beach still handled well over half of all U.S. container imports from Asia last year, more than 40 percent of exports, and more than 40 percent of trade overall, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions. That is why the political clash over the two ports' Clean Trucks Program is profoundly troubling. The future of these ports as a major container trade gateway is truly at a crossroads.

Left unresolved - as the situation may be for years if the core issues end up being litigated - and any ambition the ports or their terminals have to expand will amount to no more than a pipe dream. It is political reality in Southern California that if the ports can't grow green, they won't be able to grow at all. Cargo volumes may increase, but environmental impact statements and the underlying projects will no longer be given the go-ahead. Effective maximum capacity will quickly be reached, forcing cargo to seek smoother points of entry into North America.

However, if the trucking issue is resolved, but in a way that requires trucks serving the port to be driven by employee drivers, the consequences are more troubling still. Employee drivers means unionized drivers. The long-standing harbor drayage system of independent owner-operators, maintained by drivers who cherish their independence, is a natural bulwark against unionization.

Should a new system of employee drivers be artificially mandated, as initially proposed under the Clean Trucks Program, the result would be the advent of another union in the port - the Teamsters - able to shut down or significantly disrupt the nation's largest port complex and perhaps other gateways if such an opening triggers a national trend. The U.S. labor movement has identified the supply chain as a big opportunity, laden with the symbolism of trade and outsourcing. If it succeeds, it will not just be a victory for the unions, but a strike at the heart of the U.S. international trade system.

As it stands now, things are moving in the opposite direction of a positive resolution. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last year proposed a Clean Air Action Plan that calls for significant long-term reductions in noxious emissions from the trucks that move containers between the marine terminals and local distribution centers and railheads. At its core, the idea was and remains entirely valid; clean up the air such that the community can benefit and appreciate the ports for the value they provide.

The Port of Long Beach, with the support of Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a former businessman, in February broke with Los Angeles by approving its CAAP plan without the initially proposed requirement that trucking firms authorized to call at the port use only employee drivers. As Foster put it at last week's JoC Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference in Long Beach, "I am a friend of organized labor, but I don't know when it became government's job to guarantee membership" in a union.

The Port of Los Angeles continues to insist that it will go its own way, requiring employee drivers as part of its plan. That spells trouble. The American Trucking Associations and elements of the trade community have threatened to sue the Port of Los Angeles to prevent the adoption of such a plan on the basis that it would restrict interstate commerce and violate maritime law.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for a Safe Environment have threatened to sue the Port of Long Beach for not moving fast enough to clean up the trucks. However ironic that it's Long Beach - not Los Angeles - that has approved its Clean Air Action Plan, the talk is still of litigation, not resolution.

The crux of the problem is that the legitimate goal of clean air has been sidetracked by a labor agenda. The concept of replacing old and dirty trucks arose out of the need to clean the air to improve living conditions in the community and allow the ports to expand. How does it impact air quality if the driver of a truck hauling a container is driven by an employee rather than an owner-operator?

This is the question that environmental groups that have oddly allied themselves with the Teamsters need to answer. So far, they haven't.