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American Shipper

Protestors call on Long Beach officials to make port drivers employees

Protestors call on Long Beach officials to make port drivers employees

Nearly 75 supporters and members of a coalition led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters confronted the Long Beach City Council on Tuesday, calling for the city to adopt a controversial employee-only mandate to a Port of Long Beach truck replacement plan passed last month.

   The protesters' appearance before the nine-member council came after the group staged an hour-long protest in front of Long Beach City Hall, decrying the city's recent action to unilaterally move forward on the truck plan by dropping a contentious labor mandate originally drafted into the plan.

   On Feb. 18, the city's port commission adopted the final component of the $2.2 billion plan that seeks to replace or retrofit nearly all the trucks in the 17,000-strong port drayage fleet with less emissive models within five years. Long Beach port officials and their counterparts at the adjacent Port of Los Angeles developed the plan in close cooperation, jointly passing identical versions of the plan's initial components in November and December of last year.

   Long Beach officials, partly at the insistence of Long Beach Mayor Robert Foster, broke ranks with Los Angeles officials over the plan's final component that set down criteria for trucking firms to obtain a port-access license from the ports. Initial drafts of the licensing criteria called for requiring ports-servicing trucking firms to hire drivers as per-hour employees, instead of as per-load independent owner-operators.

   The retail, shipping and transportation industry vehemently opposed the employee-only component of the ports' truck plan, calling it a precursor to the Teamsters' unionization of the port truck drivers.

   The Teamsters, which has made no secret of its plans to unionize port truckers at five major U.S. port operations, has failed in numerous attempts over the past decade to organize the independent owner-operators serving the Long Beach-Los Angeles ports. Nearly 90 percent of the two ports' drivers are independent owner-operators. Academic and professional surveys of the drivers have repeatedly indicated that 70 percent to 85 percent of the drivers want to maintain their independent owner-operator status.

   While Long Beach's decision to allow ports-servicing truck firms to use both employees and owner-operators drew support from the shipping industry, numerous environmental, labor and social justice groups, including the Teamster fronted coalition, blasted the Long Beach decision.

   Protestors on Tuesday criticized Long Beach city officials for dropping the employee-only mandate.

   Representatives of the group said the Long Beach plan, which only differs from the draft Los Angeles version by less than 10 words related to the employee criteria, will not work and will unfairly put the burden of the new trucks on low-wage drivers.

   Studies have shown that port drivers take home an average of about $75,000 a year, but nearly 60 percent of their pay is eaten up in fuel and other truck-related expenses.

   'I wanted to let you know that this program that Long Beach is giving us is not going to work,' Oscar Torello, who claimed to be an eight-year port driver, told the City Council. 'It's too expensive for us. We can't make it. And if Long Beach doesn't have a better plan for us and L.A. is with us, we'll work L.A. We are with L.A.'

   The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, an industry association representing most shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast, applauded the city council decision on the truck plan in a statement read by a representative and urged the city to stick to the plan as adopted to avoid litigation.

   The adopted port truck plan 'should not be delayed by policy decisions that are almost certain to raise legal questions that, right or wrong, will hinder the implementation of this legitimately good policy,' said the association's statement, read by former City Hall and Port of Long Beach government affairs executive Carl Kemp.

   The Teamster coalition-organized protest follows a weeklong print ad campaign in the local Long Beach Press-Telegram newspaper. The coalition's ads personally blamed Foster for the Long Beach port decision, saying the city's port commission 'rejected all the strong environmental standards' the plan originally called for.

   The full-page ads also urged residents to call Foster and 'tell him to get back on track.'

   Los Angeles officials are set to approve their version of the truck plan final component on March 20.

   Last Thursday, a Los Angeles port-sponsored report by the Boston Consulting Group recommended the port adopt a final truck plan component virtually identical to that approved by Long Beach, but including language mandating employee-only drivers in the ports-servicing fleet.

   A major advocate of the Los Angeles employee-only plan has been Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was personally presented with an outline for the employee-only truck plan by Teamsters' president James Hoffa Jr., in 2006.

   Ironically, Villaraigosa, who has referred to the ports' trucking system as 'third-world' in design, recently promoted Angelenos becoming truck drivers at the opening of a free truck driver-training academy at the site of the city’s decommissioned Lopez Canyon Landfill. The academy, sponsored in part by the Teamsters and mirroring a similar academy already in operation in Long Beach, was designed to address a projected regional shortage of truck drivers in the near future, most of which will be in the ports' drayage fleet.

   At Monday's kick-off of the Los Angeles academy, Villaraigosa reversed his previous positions on the nature of the local trucking industry, telling attendees the program “will create middle-class jobs and help narrow the economic gap in our city. By training Angelenos for good paying jobs as truck drivers, we can help keep our economy strong and vibrant.” ' Keith Higginbotham

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