My Word: Congress Must Give Port of Oakland Authority to Set Standards to Help Truckers

Christine Cordero and Rome Aloise, Oakland Tribune, December 28, 2009

A THOUSAND truck
drivers face unemployment in January when their rigs are banned from
the Port of Oakland. The state is rightly enforcing new diesel truck
emission standards, but these drivers can't afford the new trucks or
upgrades needed to comply. The drivers are angry because they were
misled about the availability of grants to pay the costs.

An
economist hired by the Port of Oakland estimated it would cost $200
million to transition to a clean port truck fleet to meet 2010 and 2014
standards. But there was only $22 million in the grant fund. Eight
hundred drivers received grants, but more than 1,200 applicants were
turned down. Some drivers bought newer trucks, intending to retrofit
them. Now they're stuck with debt on a truck that they won't even be
able to drive next year.

Drivers have been staging protests at
the port, City Hall and the state capitol. Some are demanding more
funding. Others are asking for a deadline extension and there was talk
of staging a work stoppage.

Understandably, the drivers are
scared and frustrated. They're desperate. They wonder how they're going
to support their families. Port drivers make poverty-level wages. Few
have health benefits. Misclassified as independent contractors, they
are ineligible for unemployment benefits. They have no safety net.

Make no mistake: These regulations are critical for improving air quality for residents, port drivers and other workers who are at great risk of contracting asthma, cancer and other diseases associated with diesel soot.

But
it is a mistake to cast this problem as a conflict between the truck
drivers struggling to protect their livelihoods versus government
regulators protecting residents who want clean air for their kids to
breathe.

Conspicuously absent in this debate is the role of the
corporations that own and ship the goods. Companies like Walmart,
Target and Home Depot reap huge profits from the services the port
provides, yet no one is asking them to help pay to make the port a safe
place for workers and the surrounding communities. Instead, taxpayers
are being told that we have to subsidize these companies while they
lobby with everything they've got to avoid paying their fair share.

The
Port of Los Angeles recognized the dangers of the broken port trucking
system and has enacted a comprehensive and sustainable Clean Truck
Program, requiring port trucking companies to hire their drivers as
employees and take responsibility for less polluting trucks. Instantly,
2,000 of the oldest, dirtiest rigs were taken off the road and nearly
6,000 clean-burning vehicles were put into service. The result was
immediate significant air quality improvements.

But the American
Trucking Association sued to stop this highly successful program.
Fearing the high cost of legal defense when the Port of Oakland is
financially strapped, the port decided to put real trucking reform on
hold. Now we're stuck with toxic air to breathe.

That's why
environmentalists, unions and community activists across the country
are calling on Congress to update federal law to ensure that ports have
the authority to set environmental, labor and community standards for
port trucking. Once this happens, the industry must be required to pay
for the new trucks needed to clean up the air and protect the public's
health. It's time for the free ride to end.

 

Christine
Cordero, an Oakland resident, is the Bridging Environmental Health
& Justice Program Coordinator for the Center for Environmental
Health. Rome Aloise is President of Teamsters Joint Council 7. They are
both members of the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports.

 

Click here to view this article on the Oakland Tribune's website. 

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