Truckers’ status is a hitch in port plan

Times Staff Writers

The mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach have spent nearly a year marching in lock-step, crafting a groundbreaking $1.6-billion plan for removing nearly 17,000 exhaust-spewing diesel trucks from the nation’s two busiest harbors.

With remarkable ease, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster spurred their respective ports to pass initiatives that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: first a ban on older trucks moving through the ports; then a $35 fee on each cargo container to pay for newer, cleaner trucks.

But last month, Foster broke ranks with Villaraigosa by rejecting the plan’s final piece, a proposal backed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to require independent truck drivers at the Long Beach harbor to be employees of trucking companies, a move that would make it easier for them to organize.


Foster’s decision drew an outcry from the region’s labor leaders and environmentalists, who have joined forces in the truck campaign. That, in turn, has thrown the two mayors’ views into stark relief.

On one side is Villaraigosa, who grew up in Los Angeles and entered public life as a union activist. On the other is Foster, who spent his childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked for years in the management ranks of Southern California Edison, ending up as the utility’s president.

Villaraigosa and his allies argue that truck drivers, most of whom are now independent contractors, need to be well paid in order to take care of the new trucks that the ports plan to help them buy. On the other side, Foster and his supporters say the union-backed provision will attract lawsuits and be difficult to defend in court, delaying the clean-air plan by two to three years -- or killing it altogether.

The fight has quickly made Long Beach, a community once known as Iowa by the Sea, a target of big-city politics, L.A. style.

Since last month’s vote by the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners against that provision, a coalition of unions and clean-air advocates has bought at least five full-page, color advertisements denouncing Foster in the Long Beach Press-Telegram. With encouragement from Villaraigosa, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the neighboring Port of Los Angeles, has been pressing Long Beach to reverse itself.

Two weeks ago, the Teamsters got tougher, urging the California Transportation Commission to deny Long Beach as much as $550 million earmarked for such projects as the repair of the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge. Teamsters legislative representative Barry Broad said state transportation money should continue flowing to Los Angeles, which is expected to approve the employee provision.


“We’re optimistic that the Port of Los Angeles will move forward with a rational plan,” Broad said. “Meanwhile, it’s going to be pandemonium and anarchy in Long Beach.”

The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners is expected to begin reviewing options at a meeting tonight.

Each mayor insists that he has the right strategy for cleaning up the port complex, considered the largest stationary source of air pollution in Southern California. But the disagreement has left some industry leaders wondering whether politics will prove the undoing of the clean-air plan, which was supposed to ban every port truck built before 2007 by Jan. 1, 2012.

“This is something that has national implications beyond the harbor,” said lobbyist Barna Szabo, who has a client that just received $737,000 from the ports to buy trucks fueled by liquid natural gas. “So I think the schedule will be lost. The clarity will be lost. I’m just not sure where it’s going to go, and it’s a darn shame.”

The mayors’ two distinct styles were on display last week at a conference attended by shipping industry leaders, alternative fuel makers and advocacy groups. Villaraigosa, who typically shows up late to public appearances, threw the conference an hour behind schedule by the time he finished his luncheon address, which called for truck drivers to receive better wages and benefits.

“These truckers [are] working jobs that most of us -- and I’m looking at all of you in your suits and ties, you’re doing very well -- that most of us would never accept,” he told the crowd. “These are jobs that are dirty. They are jobs that don’t provide healthcare. These are independent contractors who could never afford to do what we need to do to retrofit our [truck] engines.”

A day later, Foster made a more punctual appearance, staying 20 minutes after his speech to greet a group of admirers. Chewing gum as he spoke, Foster talked of children getting sick from diesel exhaust and warned that the union-backed measure would be a distraction from the goal of rapidly cleaning the air.

“We cannot wait, and I’m not going to stand around and see kids in Long Beach continue to contract asthma, continue to have truncated lung development . . . or continue to miss school,” he told the crowd.

Because he has been so vocal on the clean-truck program, Foster has borne the brunt of the criticism since the five-member Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners voted to allow trucking firms to continue using independent owner-operators.

Moments after that vote, one Villaraigosa ally declared that the region’s environmental and labor groups would sever their ties to Foster forever, dooming his political future.

“He’s done,” declared Jonathan Parfrey, who heads Green L.A, a coalition devoted to shaping and promoting Villaraigosa’s environmental agenda.

Foster refused to back down, saying that until this fight, he has had good relations with the region’s labor unions.

“My job is not to promote their interests. My job is not to promote corporate interests. My job is the public interest, and I take that seriously,” he said. “So the end result is, if this happens to be the only office I ever hold and the only term I ever serve, I’m comfortable with that.”

The Teamsters-backed provision is favored by an array of clean-air advocates, public health groups and a dozen unions, as well as the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an ally of Villaraigosa. But it is opposed by business leaders, particularly the American Trucking Assn.

Despite the acrimony, environmentalists and business leaders agree on one thing: Neither can imagine the side-by-side ports having separate systems for regulating truck drivers. To David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the boundary between Los Angeles and Long Beach means little when it comes to air pollution.

“In practical terms, this is one big port, and the best way to clean it up is for the ports to act as one,” he said.

A trucking industry representative agreed but warned that his organization would sue Los Angeles if it followed through with Villaraigosa’s plans for requiring that truck drivers be employees.

“The mayor’s biggest problem is he has good intentions, but they are not legal,” said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the intermodal motor carriers conference of the American Trucking Assn.

The political elites in Los Angeles and Long Beach have a web of relationships that go well beyond the one-year alliance between Foster and Villaraigosa. Foster was Hahn’s boss at Edison a decade ago, before she became a city councilwoman. Long Beach Harbor Commission President Mario Cordero has a daughter, Celine Cordero, working for Villaraigosa.

The coalition pushing the truck plan is based at the office of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor advocacy group whose executive director, Madeline Janis, is a high-profile Villaraigosa appointee at the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Janis’ organization has been a major Los Angeles player in battles over raising the wages of hotel workers near Los Angeles International Airport and a recent push for hospital expansion in the San Fernando Valley. The group is so focused on the truck campaign that it registered two of its employees as lobbyists. And on the day of the vote in Long Beach, it sent Foster an extensive public records request demanding copies of all correspondence between him and two dozen business entities.

The truck fight has exposed other differences between Long Beach and the nation’s second-largest city. Villaraigosa, a national political figure, met personally with Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. in November 2006 to discuss the truck proposal. Foster, 61, heard from the union’s West Coast representatives.

Villaraigosa also has not hesitated to raise huge campaign contributions from groups with a stake in the clean-truck plan. He secured $500,000, the largest donation of the campaign for the ballot measure known as Proposition S, from Change to Win, a labor coalition pushing the truck plan. Among the unions in that group is the Teamsters.

Villaraigosa said last week that he still believed the Teamsters-backed proposal would ensure that truck drivers maintain the new alternative-fuel trucks. And although his close allies have made Foster a target, Villaraigosa said he planned to keep working with Long Beach.

“I don’t see this as a divorce in any way,” he said. “We’re taking a different path.”