L.A. needs to clean up its ports, but truck drivers shouldn't have to pay for all of it

L.A. needs to clean up its ports, but truck drivers shouldn't have to pay for all of it
Trucks wait in line to take cargo to a pier in the Port of Long Beach on April 8, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Kudos to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia for offering ambitious plans to bring zero-emissions trucks to their ports. Yet in the pursuit of cleaner air and lower carbon, policymakers can't ignore how the costs and burdens of past pollution-cutting programs have fallen disproportionately on those least able to afford them: the truck drivers who haul goods between the ports and warehouses around the region.

Garcetti and Garcia pledged last week to wean their publicly owned ports off dirty diesel and other fossil fuels and switch to zero-emission equipment by 2035. This aggressive plan to cut emissions is vital both to protect residents living near the single-largest source of pollution in the region and to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change.


The question is how to achieve that goal without exacerbating the inequities of the logistics industry that have turned many port truckers into modern day indentured servants.

Many drivers say the Clean Trucks Program worsened the already poverty-level wages they earned as independent contractors.

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A decade ago, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach enacted the Clean Trucks Program that banned older model trucks from entering the port complex. The program was necessary because the ports were often the last stop for the oldest, dirtiest trucks that could be bought cheaply by drivers, who work as independent contractors serving trucking companies. And it was successful — toxic diesel soot dropped by 97%.

The rules mandated newer, cleaner models that often cost well over $100,000 to buy and required pricey maintenance. That expense was simply unaffordable for most drivers, who worked an average of 50 hours a week and took home less than $30,000 a year after expenses, according to a 2007 report.

The original program pushed by then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attempted to address the affordability gap by requiring trucking companies working at the ports to hire the drivers as employees, rather than treating them as independent contractors. The trucking companies would then be responsible for buying and maintaining the new rigs; drivers would paid by the hour, not by the trip, and would be eligible for benefits.

The labor and environmental groups behind Villaraigosa's plan argued that the mandate was the only way to ensure that already low-paid truckers didn't get stuck with the huge expense of clean-truck transition. Critics derided Villaraigosa's plan as a Teamster-backed attempt to force march the industry from independent contractors to unionized employees. The American Trucking Assn. sued, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the requirement.

A decade later, many drivers say the Clean Trucks Program worsened the already poverty-level wages they earned as independent contractors. Because many drivers couldn't afford to buy their own trucks, they entered into lease-to-own arrangements with trucking companies that bought new vehicles. In some cases, the leases heavily favored the trucking companies. In an investigation published last week, USA Today found that the arrangements often left drivers with little money after paying for the truck lease, fuel and other expenses. The newspaper uncovered contracts that allowed companies to fire truckers at will, keeping both the truck and the payments that had been made.

Many drivers will eventually pay off the leases and own their trucks, but they worry that they'll soon be back in debt as the ports require ever-cleaner vehicles.

The ports should not back off their clean-air goals. But leaders in L.A. and Long Beach also cannot proceed without finding a way to help drivers manage the transition to zero-emissions vehicles — for example, by offering grants or low-cost loans to help drivers buy clean trucks. The Teamsters union, which launched its 15th strike in four years of trucking companies and warehouses this week, is pushing the ports to deny access to trucking companies that have labor violations. (The California Labor Commissioner's office has ruled in 376 cases that drivers were misclassified as independent contractors and owed more than $40 million in back pay and penalties, according to the Teamsters.)

The labor strife and pollution problems at the port are complex, made all the more challenging by the fact that L.A. and Long Beach are competing for trade customers with ports across the country. So far, however, there are few signs that city leaders are taking truckers' concerns seriously or thinking about how the next generation of clean-air goals will impact their livelihood.

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