Cleaner air, and rules, at the Port of L.A.

For years, L.A. labor and environmental advocates have been claiming that it would be impossible to clean up the diesel pollution that sickens residents near the Port of Los Angeles without phasing out the independent truckers who have traditionally picked up cargo there and replacing them with unionized employees. There’s just one problem: Three years after implementation of the port’s Clean Truck Program, during which the labor provision was blocked in federal court, it’s now clear that this isn’t true.

Hopefully, a decision Monday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will end the city of L.A.'s misguided attempt to team up with the Teamsters. The court threw out a provision of the 2008 truck program that would have required all truckers serving the port to be employees of trucking companies rather than independent contractors, which would have opened the door to a unionization drive. The rest of the program, which requires drivers to replace old, polluting engines with newer models and imposed a container fee on shippers to help subsidize the upgrades, can continue just as it has since 2008.

This page warned L.A. officials pushing the labor provision, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that it was unlikely to pass court muster. They went ahead anyway, arguing that without the employee-only requirement, independent contractors would be unable to afford the necessary upgrades and there wouldn’t be enough truckers to serve the port. That hasn’t happened. Since 2008, diesel truck emissions at the port have been reduced by 80%, officials say, and while the number of registered truckers has dropped, there has been no trouble finding ample trucks to move cargo on a timely basis.

The alliance between L.A.'s environmental activists and its unions is a sometimes uncomfortable one, as evidenced not only by the truck program’s legal troubles but by attempts from the electricians union at the Department of Water and Power to tailor clean-power initiatives to boost union membership. There’s nothing wrong with trying to enhance well-paying jobs in L.A., but that has no connection with improving the environment. Local politicians routinely conflate the two interests because pro-environment efforts are widely popular and pro-union efforts aren’t, but being disingenuous about motives doesn’t enhance anybody’s credibility.