Just 13 months after Los Angeles and Long Beach set their maritime rivalry aside to fight diesel pollution at the nation's busiest seaport complex, the partnership has collapsed.
In a disagreement that hinges on labor practices, the two cities are now so fundamentally at odds that some experts fear customers will seek out other harbors to escape a storm of complications, confusion and acrimony.
At issue is whether the drivers who haul freight to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach should be required to work for trucking companies -- and therefore be more likely to be recruited by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.
L.A., as part of its plan to encourage drivers to use lower-emission trucks at the harbor, has taken a pro-union position by requiring truckers to work for a company instead of being self-employed. Long Beach has not supported such a requirement.
Their disagreement was hidden for a time beneath the rhetoric of working together to clean the air. But when Long Beach publicly settled a lawsuit by an industry organization that opposes the pro-union position, the gloves came off.
If the two cities continue to clash, importers and exporters might begin avoiding the harbor altogether, dodging confusion over which trucks would be allowed to move cargo. That's a scenario that could devastate businesses that depend on international trade at a time when the value of goods passing through the ports is on track to drop 29% this year.
"You will reach a point where shippers decide they just don't want to come here," said John Husing, an economist who tracks the effects of international trade on the Inland Empire. "It's too complicated, too political, and the cargo begins to go somewhere else."
The two ports presented a united front to the public in October 2008, on the day that the oldest and dirtiest of the trucks were taken off the road.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a former labor organizer, stood with Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster just over a year ago, pledging to work with the rival port to clean up the air.
But since Long Beach reached its settlement with the American Trucking Assn., Villaraigosa has forged alliances with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory A. Booker, all supporters of a clean-air plan that includes incentives for organized labor.
The four mayors, who represent three of the nation's top 10 container ports, are pushing for a change in federal law that would give seaports limited regulatory authority over trucking. They argue that expensive new trucks can be maintained over the long term only if employers cover part of the cost and if the truckers gain collective bargaining rights that allow them to fight for good wages and benefits.
"I have seen firsthand the unintended consequences" of a deregulated, nonunion system, Dellums said. "These include increased pollution, low-paid jobs with high turnover, inefficiency within goods movement, and destructive competition for motor carriers and ports."
Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said nonunion truck drivers work up to 16 hours a day in old, polluting trucks that he called "sweatshops on wheels."
What's the issue?
Richard Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, argues that the clean air issue is separate from that of whether drivers should work for trucking companies. Steinke said Long Beach was already ahead of its goals of putting cleaner trucks on the road and that the city would keep working with truckers to improve air quality around its port.
His counterpart, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, said her city's plan was necessary to preserve gains.
"Who will pay for the next fleet of clean trucks when today's new trucks will need to be replaced?" she said.
L.A.'s plan is not currently in effect -- the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles has barred the city from implementing it, under a temporary injunction won by the trucking association as part of a lawsuit.
Experts say Southern California is the only region in the U.S. where different freight hauling standards could collide at a single harbor. The port of New York-New Jersey, for example, serves two states but is run by one port authority. In Virginia, the state oversees all seaports. Any confusion over which drivers are allowed to operate might be too much for L.A. and Long Beach customers who just want their cargo to move quickly.
"You could have a pool of independent drivers serving Long Beach and unionized drivers serving Los Angeles," said Jack Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "Shippers could be concerned about that causing delays and confusion."
The ports and their municipal overseers have refrained from open criticism of each other, but their allies have not been so reserved.
Some have cloaked their criticism in the language of environmentalism, even though both cities have been following through with their plans to replace high-emission trucks with cleaner ones.
"Rather than clean up the trucks that serve its port, Long Beach ran away from a fight," said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, which has allied itself with the Teamsters and a coalition of community-based groups.
Last week the NRDC and seven groups asked the Long Beach City Council to intervene against the settlement.
Supporters of Long Beach's approach frame the argument as one over organized labor.
"Though critics might have you believe otherwise, the aggressive clean truck requirements championed by Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and the Port of Long Beach remain firmly in place," said an organization of importers that includes Target Corp., Best Buy Co., Gap Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
One trucker's view
Far from helping independent truckers, the rules requiring that they become employees could cost drivers their businesses, Heriberto S. Perez Jr. argued.
Perez used to drive an exhaust-spewing 1988 Freightliner that lurched through the streets on the strength of air-polluting diesel fuel. The truck had no air conditioner, a broken window and only a fraction of its original power.
Now he travels to and from the local ports in a 2009 Kenworth T800 liquefied natural gas truck he leased this year. The truck has a drivetrain that derives 95% of its power from natural gas.
"I have a seven-year truck lease," Perez said. "What happens if I'm not an employee in five years like they said I have to be? I can't drive the truck?"
Some observers say that Los Angeles and Long Beach have chosen paths that are rooted in different economic experiences. Of the five major West Coast ports, Long Beach has suffered the most from the recession. The city's outlook has also been tempered by the loss of its Navy base and shipyard and aerospace jobs.
Los Angeles is less dependent on its port. The city has more tourism, a huge manufacturing base, the entertainment industry, downtown revitalization, three professional sports teams and other strengths.
But Kyser said neither port can afford to lose business. And that's exactly what could happen, he said, if the two facilities continue their feud.
"When we are fighting among ourselves, shippers get very nervous," Kyser said.