Importing injustice

Pub date July 17, 2007


More than 100 tractor trailers were lined up at 6:30 a.m., inching toward the Port of Oakland’s Terminal 7, waiting for their next load. Against the backdrop of the San Francisco skyline, a mammoth freight ship emblazoned with the name Hyundai glided toward the port, pregnant with multicolor shipping containers.

A driver told the Guardian that he expected to be in line for at least two hours waiting to drop off the empty container attached to his big rig. His 1989 truck lacks air-conditioning, so the windows were rolled down, allowing diesel exhaust to pollute the air he was breathing.

It’s the same scene at many of the port’s other terminals: long lines of ancient trucks slowly snaking toward their destinations, their primarily immigrant drivers performing the essential and thankless task of transporting cheap clothes from Asia to the nation’s big-box retailers or helping to export California’s agricultural goods to Hawaii.

The fourth-busiest container port in the nation, the Port of Oakland is the economic engine of the region, providing thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in revenue. But activists say that the port system has also led to sweatshoplike conditions for truckers and created a health crisis for the surrounding community.

On their poverty-level wages, truckers are usually able to buy only the oldest, most polluting trucks. Their diesel pollution is a major factor driving asthma rates through the roof in the neighboring, primarily African American neighborhood of West Oakland, where, the American Lung Association says, one in every five kids has asthma.

A new national coalition of labor, environmental, and community activists has advanced a proposal that would make all drivers employees with benefits, radically changing the way work is done on the waterfront and possibly heralding the return of the Teamsters to the ports for the first time in more than 20 years. In the process, the proposal would make the port’s biggest customers responsible for its environmental problems.

The coalition places the blame for the current situation squarely on giant retail shippers such as Wal-Mart and Target and is calling for them to be held accountable for the full environmental and labor costs of the cheap goods they sell — a call the corporations are strenuously resisting. The American Trucking Association, whose members contract directly with the corporation, has threatened a lawsuit if the change is adopted. But port officials have voiced a willingness to seriously consider implementing the proposal.

Having long claimed that the trucking industry is outside its control, the Port of Oakland could embrace the proposal as a means of satisfying community, environmental, political, and business concerns. With impending directives to clean the air coming from Sacramento, trade planned to almost double by 2020, two new Port Commission appointees representing labor and environmental concerns, and a federal antiterrorism tracking plan slated for this fall, the port is poised to play a leadership role that could reverberate up and down the West Coast and across the country.


The Port of Oakland’s estimated 1,500 to 2,500 drivers are a far cry from the middle-class, long-haul Teamsters and the Smokey and the Bandit–<\d>style freewheeling rebels who have long been engrained in the American imagination. Instead, they are at the bottom of the port’s food chain and are the most exploited trucking sector in the country, consisting primarily of recent immigrants struggling to make ends meet.

Dawit Fre, 39, immigrated to Oakland from the small nation of Eritrea two years ago. "I wanted to see a better life," he told us. Fre was a driver in Africa and went to work for the Port of Oakland after his cousin told him people start their trucking careers there. He said he works up to 60 hours a week for one company, making the equivalent of about $8 an hour after expenses.

Fre arrives at work every day no later than 6:30 a.m., waits for dispatches from his company, and spends a minimum of two hours in line for each container he picks up or drops off. He is paid $42 for each load by the company. He doesn’t know how much the trucking companies make but has heard that some get $200 per load. He returns home around 6:30 at night.

"The whole time I’m at the port, I’m thinking about my family," he said. "I got children. The only thing I’m thinking inside the terminal is, how many moves am I going to do? Am I going to do four or five or three or two?"

On a good day he can get four, on a bad day as few as one, depending on the length of the lines and the generosity of the dispatcher. Then there are his expenses. As an independent operator, Fre is solely responsible for a tankful of diesel that costs him up to $250 a pop. DMV registration is $178 a month, and 12 percent of his weekly earnings goes to his boss for insurance on his truck, not to mention annual federal income tax.

He receives no benefits, no overtime pay, and no health care coverage at a time when his wife, a diabetic, is suffering from severe stomach complications. "I’m taking her to Highland Hospital," he told us. "If it’s easy for them to fix, they can do it. But if she has a big problem, they can’t do it."

Fre has his own health problems. "Most of the drivers, we have old trucks," he said. "You don’t have AC, your windows are down, and you get sick in the truck" from the diesel. Fre’s remedy for his persistent coughing and the burning in his throat is several glasses of milk after each day of work.

A 1998 study published in the Journal of Independent Medicine found that truck drivers face a risk of cancer 10 times greater than Occupational Safety and Health Administration–acceptable levels, and a 1990 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that truckers face nearly double the average lifetime lung cancer risk.

Fre has little money to invest in his truck, a ragged 1987 model that he said needs $5,000 in repairs. He doesn’t trust it on the freeway, so he’s asked his dispatcher to send him only from pier to pier, not outside the port, further dipping into his earnings. "I came here to see a better life," he said. "When I got here, I found it is different. Here we don’t get paid for the overtime. We don’t get benefits. When I get into the terminal, there is no respect."

His experience is typical of those of port truckers across the country. A study by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, found that the average Port of Oakland trucker makes as little as $8 an hour after expenses, works 11 hours a day, and spends two and a half hours in line per load. Almost none of the truckers reported receiving benefits on the job, and 66 percent don’t have health insurance.

This is consistent with data from a 2004 survey of port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, conducted by a professor of economics at California State University Long Beach. That report found they had a median income of $25,000 a year after expenses and an average workday of 11.2 hours, with up to 33 percent of their time spent waiting in line.

Port truckers generally drive only the oldest, most polluting trucks because that’s all they can afford. An industry adage is that ports are "the place trucks go to die," a reality that has dire impacts on the surrounding communities.


West Oakland has long been a dumping ground for the Bay Area’s toxic waste. The community has one of the five highest asthma hospitalization rates in California, with an estimated 20 percent of its K–<\d>12 students suffering from the disorder, according to the ALA. Researchers at the University of Southern California have found that children living within a few hundred meters of freeways leading out of ports not only are more likely to suffer from asthma but also actually develop smaller lungs.

Margaret Gordon, a 60-year-old community health activist who has lived just blocks from the Port of Oakland for 15 years, told us that she and four of her grandchildren living with her all suffer from asthma. When one grandchild was born with severe asthma and her own asthma worsened after she moved to West Oakland, Gordon, then a housekeeper, started reading about the causes of asthma and made the connection to the port. Like many in the low-income neighborhood, she cannot afford to move elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Gordon has been fighting for clean air for more than a decade, and in April she was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for her work. In 2001, Gordon formed the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, which she now cochairs. The project has released more than half a dozen studies related to air quality. A 2003 report showed that trucks traveling through West Oakland in one day produce the same amount of toxic soot as 127,677 cars, leading to indoor air in some neighborhood homes that is five times more toxic than that in other parts of the city.

Still, Gordon told us that port officials are "only starting paying attention." Last year the California Air Resources Board passed a resolution related to air quality at ports and announced that it was developing a regulatory mechanism. A 2006 CARB report found that truck diesel exhaust accounts for the majority of the estimated 2,400 deaths related to freight transport each year and 70 percent of the state’s air pollution–<\d>related cancer risk. Freight transport will cost California residents $200 billion in health costs over the next 15 years. Most of this is borne by low-income communities of color near freight transport hubs.

The combination of state mandates and local community concerns is starting to spark a change. "They would sit down and talk with us before that, but there was not anything concrete done," Gordon told us. The port is now in the early planning stages of an air-quality-improvement program, working with Gordon and other activists.

That movement is getting vigorous new support from the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national partnership of labor, environmental, and community activists organizing at the country’s major container ports: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Miami, Oakland, New York–New Jersey, and Seattle.

"Every one of those ports has the same environmental and labor problems we have in Oakland," Doug Bloch, the coordinator for the coalition in Oakland, told us during a tour of the port’s heavy industrial landscape. Virtually all of its 900 maritime acres are covered by concrete and asphalt, monster cranes that inspired Star Wars‘ Imperial Walkers, and 20-foot steel containers stacked up like Legos behind chain-link fences.

The Port of Oakland has no direct relationship with its truckers at the present. Shippers take price bids from among roughly 100 trucking companies at the port, then contract the work to the independent-contractor truckers. The CCSP says bidding wars lead to poverty wages for truckers, older trucks and more pollution, and a chaotic port full of inefficiencies like long pickup waits.

Under the proposed system, ports would call on their ability as landlords to set standards for the trucking and shipping companies. They would require trucking companies to hire drivers as employees, shifting maintenance costs from the drivers to the companies, which would retrofit or replace all port trucks with more environmentally friendly rigs. The ports would allow only new, cleaner trucks to enter. The companies could then, in theory, pass the costs on to shippers and end users.

If drivers were paid as employees by the hour instead of by the trip, the coalition expects the market would reduce inefficient truck wait times and air pollution.

"When you rent an apartment you sign a lease," Bloch told us. "If you trash the place, you get evicted. Corporations are trashing this community, but they’re not being evicted."

A test case could soon be under way at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest in the United States, and the situation is being closely watched by ports and industries across the country. Port commissioners there had hoped by the end of this month to approve the coalition’s program, which they expect to reduce diesel truck emissions by as much as 80 percent over the next five years. But growing opposition and the threat of lawsuits by groups like the California Trucking Association, which represents the owners of truck companies, and the Waterfront Coalition, a consortium of major retailers, led the ports to delay their decision. The commissioners now expect to vote in September after completing an economic impact survey.

At the center of the storm is the fact that as employees, truckers would be able to organize and form a union. As independent contractors, they are barred from doing so because of antitrust laws originally created to oppose vast enterprises that dominated industries. (A further irony is that giant retail steamship companies have experienced incredible consolidation and enjoy a limited antitrust immunity.)

If passed by LA port officials, the plan would be implemented there starting Jan. 1, 2008, and could result in a domino effect at the other, smaller ports across the country. "The industry is fighting like hell in LA," Bloch told us. "They know that if they’re going to have to pay, the party’s over."

Meanwhile, Bloch told us that more than 1,000 truckers have signed a petition asking the Port of Oakland to pass a version of the coalition’s proposal, and it will be presented to the Port Commission, the seven-member body that would eventually vote on the proposal. Spokesperson Libby Schaff told us that the port "agrees with the coalition that the port can and should have a more direct relationship with its truckers" and is "very seriously considering the coalition’s proposal."

Because the proposal "constitutes a major overhaul of the way trucking is done today," Schaff said the port is currently holding stakeholder meetings with residents, truckers, terminal operators, elected officials, the business community, and labor to consider it in the context of a more comprehensive port plan. Schaff said a comprehensive plan could be crafted in less than a year.

The port has not taken a position on granting truckers employee status. It is also looking into other funding mechanisms for a clean-truck program, including money from a pending state bill that would impose a $30 fee on every 20-foot-equivalent unit passing through the Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland port complexes, to be used for improvements in road and rail infrastructure and for clean-air programs.

The legislation, Senate Bill 974, by Alan Lowenthal (D–Long Beach), would generate more than $525 million annually. But it faces tough opposition from some very powerful interests.


Bill Aboudi, president of Oakland’s AB Trucking and a member of the CTA, told us truckers are "treated like second-class citizens," and he believes long lines and trucker asthma are serious problems. But he strongly opposes the coalition’s proposal. Instead, he told us, state regulations like those forthcoming from CARB and other piecemeal reforms are the answer.

"The coalition’s main goal is to unionize the drivers," Aboudi said. He was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with two American flags and the words "Oakland Trucker." An immigrant from Israel, he has been at the Port of Oakland since 1992. "If these guys choose to be owner-operators, why are you rocking the boat? You can’t be playing with my livelihood just because you want to get union dues," Aboudi said. "Truckers want to own a piece of the American dream. They want to own their own truck."

It’s an appealing image to many. Kevin Leonard, an owner-operator trucker who contracts with Aboudi and others, told us he doesn’t want to give up his independent status. "I have the freedom to work when I want," he said. "I don’t see how the Teamsters can represent me better than I can."

The trucking industry as a whole says the coalition plan will force away trade and drive out small trucking companies, which will have to maintain the trucks and start paying benefits such as health insurance and workers’ compensation.

Yet Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D–Oakland) brushed aside those arguments. "I’ve been involved in Bay Area politics for more than 30 years," he told us. "I’ve seen these same claims made against farmworkers as they were organizing for better conditions. I’ve seen these arguments made when we were raising the minimum wage. I think the opposite is true. If you have a workforce with a livable wage, it’s a more productive workforce, and I think everyone benefits. Truckers deserve more, and we’re going to do what we can to help them."

Oakland City Council president Ignacio de la Fuente, who drafted and helped pass a minimum-wage law for port employees, told us he supports the right of truckers to unionize but labor and environmental concerns must be balanced with economic growth. "You can’t ignore the fact that you have the port of Oakland competing with other ports," he said. "I support the fact that the Teamsters are going to bargain collectively on a national level. This port competes with other ports, and you cannot be put at a disadvantage."

Bloch says the coalition’s target is the shipping companies, not the trucking companies. "The shippers are hiding behind the trucking companies," he told us. "On the one side there are the giant shipping companies, like Wal-Mart and Target, huge global companies that demand low prices from trucking companies. On the other side are tiny trucking companies, immigrant truckers, and communities of color. Wal-Mart’s slogan is ‘always low prices,’ but ‘always low prices’ means one out of five children in West Oakland with asthma and drivers making $8 an hour who can’t support their families."

Oakland mayor Ron Dellums may be signaling his support for reform with two new appointees to the Port Commission. Even before he took office, Dellums was working to influence the Port Commission; as mayor-elect, he requested that outgoing mayor Jerry Brown hold off on appointing a new nominee so Dellums could appoint someone working on environmental and community impacts. He lost this battle when a majority of the city council voted to appoint Mark McClure, the director of marketing at a business technology company focused on security.

Dellums’s latest appointees, announced earlier this month, are a marked contrast to the business-oriented appointees of the Brown era: Victor Uno, a financial secretary with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Gordon, the longtime resident and environmental activist in West Oakland.

"The port’s policy has been all about business and not about the people," Gordon told us. "The mayor really wants someone there to talk about health issues. I have never known a mayor to put someone on the commission and one of their engagements is to talk about health." She would also like to see a public participatory-process policy built into the port. "This is about sharing the power," Gordon said. "I don’t think West Oakland residents know they have power." She has "no problem" with truckers unionizing but also wants to find a way for drivers to remain independent contractors if they prefer.

Uno told the Guardian that he is highly supportive of the proposal. "I think that if the whole commission takes the lead of Mayor Dellums that this proposal will be very seriously considered," he said. "I’m very optimistic." Asked if he thought a proposal could succeed without requiring trucking companies to hire truckers as employees, he said, "I do not see how that is possible, given the lack of regulations in the trucking industry. It’s a dog-eat-dog world among independent truckers."


The ports were not always structured as they are now. Before the 1980s the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated trucking, and most truckers at California ports were members of the Teamsters. They had health care, pensions, and workers’ compensation insurance and were paid a middle-class wage.

As part of a national push toward deregulation in the late 1970s, Congress, spurred by President Jimmy Carter, deregulated the trucking industry in 1980. In the following few years, a flood of new trucking companies entered the ports, with shippers choosing between a growing number of companies for each job. As small trucking companies undercut one another in bidding wars, the falling rates translated into declining driver pay, the bankruptcy of Teamster-organized companies, and increasing reliance on independent contractors whom companies could hire without spending money on payroll taxes, health care costs, or other benefits that unions might try to extract.

Trucking expert Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, has shown that long-haul truckers now earn less than half of prederegulation wages and work an average of more than 60 hours a week, while retailers like Wal-Mart have thrived. "The low rates paid to truckers in this global-trade game acts as a subsidy for increasing the amount of trade," Belzer told us. "Pollution and safety hazards are the negative externalities." If all ports on the West Coast required employee drivers, he said, "the market result would be that cost and safety would go up, and pollution would go down."

There have been a handful of Teamsters-related or trucker-led rallies and work stoppages at the Port of Oakland since deregulation, including a technically illegal strike in 2004 protesting the soaring price of diesel fuel, which virtually shut down the port for eight days. Many of the same complaints of today’s port truckers were aired at that time — long waits in lines, poor pay, long hours, and no benefits.

"This business is like the Mafia," Lorenzo Fernandez, 36, said, standing in front of two metal taco trucks glinting in the noon sun, along with about a half dozen other truckers on their lunch break. "They’re doing whatever they want with us, between the [truck companies] and the shippers. There is so much competition between the companies, and they know that we need the job. They know that our kids will go hungry."

Muhammad Khan, 33, said he’s sometimes forced to make up for long wait times by driving dangerously fast on the freeways. "We have our families. We have to take care of them. We all risk our lives because we have to. We don’t make enough money if we don’t make a load," Khan told us.

"We’re all immigrants here," Fernandez said. "We make it possible for the economy to grow up, but they’re stepping on our faces…. We have to work together. Otherwise we are going to be slaves for life."

A sign on a chain-link fence near the taco trucks reads, "Got an old truck? The Port of Oakland can help! Replace your old truck today!" Call the number at the bottom of the sign, and a recorded message issues an invitation to an informational barbecue that took place four months ago. The message explains that the port will provide qualifying owners with up to $40,000 to replace trucks dating from 1993 or before with a 1999-model truck. But Schaff told us, "Due to overwhelming demand, new applicants are currently not being accepted."

Money for the program came from a $9 million settlement of a lawsuit West Oakland residents filed against the Port of Oakland in 1998, alleging that their health was being harmed by port operations. The port says it will replace a total of 80 of the estimated 2,500 port trucks with those funds. When asked if the port had a responsibility to truckers, Schaff said it was "consistent with the port’s commitment to social responsibility…. We’ve done a lot, and we’re going to do more."

But the only specific programs the port could point to were the truck replacement program, a trucker access committee and working group started after the 2004 strike, and new GPS cell phone technology that is being touted as a solution for bottlenecks. Chuck Mack, the Teamsters’ Western Region vice president, isn’t impressed. "They’re a joke," he said of the programs. "Very few independent contractors have utilized them."

The recent purchase of the GPS system particularly irritates Mack. "Here is a quasi-governmental agency supplying services to the trucking companies," he told us. "It’s bizarre that we’re using taxpayer money for this. Any other industry would buy the devices themselves."

"We don’t disagree with using this money" for truck replacement, Mack said, "but what you’re doing is blowing $2 million in taxpayer money. Years down the road they’re going to need a new truck and another million in taxpayer money. For Wal-Mart and Target it’s great because they can have the taxpayer pick up the bill. Without changing the model, it’s just a short-term fix at the expense of the taxpayer."


Beyond the environmental and economic benefits of making truckers employees of the companies, the change also might improve port security. The federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, expected to be implemented in the fall, will check the identities of the nation’s 750,000 port employees, 110,000 of whom work as truckers. Under the present system, there is no way to track the independent port truckers.

Employees are easier to track, and they are also better for port security in other ways. Among low-paid port truckers, turnover rate is extremely high, according to the ATA. "We all know that having a stable, well-trained, reliable workforce only leads to more security," Bloch said. "If they’re trained, they can be the eyes and ears of the port."

Well-paid truckers also would lead to safer ports. In a 2005 report, Belzer showed that "a substantial fraction" of independent operators actually loses money each year, resulting in "a high risk of unsafe operations among those earning the least money." The low compensation also "presents a national security risk," his report read, "since those who desperately work to break even might be at risk to engage in activities that put the nation at risk, whether intentionally or unintentionally, just trying to find a way from not going under."

Driving past another long line of trucks idling outside a gate after lunch break, Bloch pointed out one truck. A placard on the back of the rig read, "End sweatshops on wheels."

The current port system "just heaps abuse and abuse on these truck drivers and this community," Bloch told us. "The big businesses like Wal-Mart don’t pay the cost of polluting Oakland. It’s the truck drivers and the community that pay the cost. People pay with their lives."

"You can’t fix the environmental problems without fixing the problems of the driver," he said. "And now you have labor and the community coming together, and that’s powerful."*