The Oakland City Council made an unprecedented move toward environmental justice Oct. 2 by appointing Margaret Gordon to the Oakland Port Commission. It is the first time that a community activist, rather than a businessperson or a political insider, has been named to that powerful body.
The action was roughly equivalent to naming Michael Moore to the board of the National Rifle Association. For years Gordon has led an effort to hold the port accountable for poisoning the air in her neighborhood, where the American Lung Association has found that one in every five children suffers from asthma.
Gordon’s nomination, along with that of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers business manager Victor Uno, signals a clear call for reform from Mayor Ron Dellums, who issued a prepared statement commending the council "for recognizing the importance of appointing individuals who are capable of understanding both the economic and the environmental impact of the various Port facilities."
Gordon’s appointment almost didn’t happen. Dellums withdrew his two nominees from consideration at the council’s July 17 meeting after it became clear that Gordon would have trouble winning the necessary votes. Since that time Dellums has lobbied hard for their confirmation and finally saw Uno approved unanimously and Gordon on a 71 vote (Councilmember Desley Brooks voted no).
"The mayor has emphatically stood behind Victor and I," Gordon told the Guardian. "He has a vision for the port. He wants it to be efficient, to grow, but not to cost people’s health. The port is supposed to make money, but it’s not supposed to make people sick."
The appointments come at a critical time. The port is now drafting a long-overdue clean-air plan, while state regulators are developing stringent clean-air requirements for ports. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national consortium of labor and environmental activists, is also advancing a proposal at Oakland and other US ports that would radically change the way port trucking is structured.
The two appointees, who begin serving immediately, will play key roles in shaping the port’s proposal. The Port Commission could vote on a final comprehensive clean-air plan as early as December. Doug Bloch, coordinator for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, told us he is "cautiously optimistic" that the seven-member Port Commission will approve his group’s proposal. "We have two votes now," he said.
The coalition seeks to clean the air by improving the sweatshoplike working conditions of port truckers, who often drive the cheapest, most polluting trucks. Its plan calls on the port to require trucking companies to maintain vehicles and hire truckers as employees. The California Trucking Association and the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association have aggressively opposed the plan, which could herald the return of the Teamsters Union. Since they are classified as independent contractors, it is illegal for truckers to join a union. As employees, they would receive benefits and have the option to organize (see "Importing Injustice," 7/18/07).
Uno told us, "Truckers becoming employees is definitely part of the solution. It is clearly one of the ways to address this issue." Asked in July 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."
Gordon told us she is in favor of any plan that improves air quality and truckers’ lives but is not convinced that making them employees is the only way. "All I’m worried about is that small businesses, unions, and community health organizations can work together," she said. "We have to be unified in resolving these issues."
Ray King, general manager of marine operations at the port, told the Guardian that a tentative outline of the port’s plan will be posted to its Web site in the coming weeks, after which it will accept public comments for 30 days.
City Council president Ignacio de la Fuente had been Gordon’s key opposition in July. He told the Oakland Tribune that an appointee was needed "who understands [the port’s] need to be competitive, to be efficient, and to grow. The fact is, we have the responsibility for balance." But at the Oct. 2 meeting, he called Gordon "a great asset" and said her appointment will lead to "the creation of a balanced Port Commission."
For the past year and half Gordon has sat on the cabinet-level working group appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that developed allocation guidelines and detailed clean-air requirements for more than $3 billion in Proposition 1B bond funds approved by California voters last year for port expansion and environmental mitigation projects. Port spokesperson Libby Schaaf told the Guardian that its success in securing these funds will play a central role in its expansion plans.
Councilmember Brooks, the sole vote against Gordon, worries that the plan could hurt the port’s fiscal viability. "This is the fourth-largest port in the US. This is the economic engine of the region. We need to ensure that we move in a direction where it will continue to grow. The port is getting ready to see some very tight times," she said at the meeting. "I told the mayor I hope he proves me wrong with this appointment."