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Kai Ryssdal: The trucking industry is most unhappy with how things are going at the biggest cargo port on the West Coast. It's suing the Port of Los Angeles over a program to clean up trucks. Their exhaust, specifically, from thousands of short-haul trucks that move stuff in and out of the port area. The case could affect the cargo and trucking industries all over the country. Also, how much consumers have to pay for the goods those trucks carry.
Sarah Gardner reports now from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.
SARAH GARDNER: It's a Friday morning at the port of Los Angeles. Big diesel trucks enter the port gates to haul billions of dollars of goods from the docks to nearby rail yards and warehouses. Thousands of these short-haul trucks go in and out each day. But the air is surprisingly free of sooty fumes.
DAVID PETTIT: Yes, air quality from trucks has improved.
That's David Pettit at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC was instrumental in persuading the L.A. Port to gradually ban older, dirty trucks from the port and help subsidize new ones. The two-year-old program is succeeding. It's helped reduce truck pollution here almost 80 percent. But L.A. infuriated the trucking industry with what it saw as a pro-labor move. It required that drivers at the L.A. Port be employees of a trucking company, not independent contractors. That essentially ensured that the companies would have to buy all those shiny, clean trucks, not the drivers.
CURTIS WHALEN: We believe it's clearly illegal.
Curtis Whalen represents the American Trucking Association. Last year the ATA won a temporary injunction against the employee mandate. It goes to trial in federal court this month.
WHALEN: There is no ability by the ports or anybody else, even at the state level, to tell us how we are to conduct our business. We operate under federal laws, and we believe it's a very sham issue to basically say, "In order to implement our clean air proposal, drivers have to be employees."
If the port's employee mandate provision prevails, it makes it easier for unions to recruit more truckers.
FRED POTTER: There's no question that the Teamsters would like to organize these workers.
Fred Potter is port director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He says labor has teamed with environmentalists to bring more regulation to port trucking. He says the two allies may have different motives, but they both want to let ports have more say in setting standards at port facilities.
POTTER: The mission for these ports is to not only to be an economic stimulus for the region, but to promote and create good jobs. These aren't good jobs.
Studies show that port drivers earn an average of $28,000 a year. Most of them are contractors, which trucking companies prefer. They say it gives them more flexibility when the economy turns sour. And it's brought the price of consumer goods down as well. But critics say it's also led to dirty, poorly-maintained trucks at the ports because contractors can't afford the upkeep.
We talked to one L.A. driver who gave only his last name. Lopez insists the burden of paying for cleaner trucks should rest on trucking companies, not drivers worried about their next paycheck.
LOPEZ: Right now it's bad.
Lopez says before the ATA's injunction he got hired as an employee driver making a salary more like $37,000 a year. The company he worked for bought new, clean trucks and paid for gas, insurance and upkeep. But after the injunction, the firm went back to hiring contractors and transferred the costs of those clean trucks onto them. Lopez says many have to now lease the new trucks under arrangements where they end up netting only a few hundred bucks a week.
LOPEZ: There's people's sleeping in the trucks. They're not paying rent, they're basically starving. I've seen drivers sleeping in a day cab, in two seats, because they can't make it.
The ATA contends many of the small trucking outfits at the ports are struggling as well and can't afford the newer trucks. They cost anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. That's partly why L.A. would like to attract fewer but more well-heeled trucking firms to its port. It may mean less competition, but the NRDC's David Pettit argues it's the only way the port will sustain a clean trucks program long term.
PETTIT: What would be better would be a business model where you have big, well-capitalized trucking companies that own the trucks, be able to maintain them, and repair them and replace them when the time came, because we don't want to keep doing this every two or three years.
If the courts uphold L.A.'s employee mandate, other ports like New York and New Jersey may follow its lead. But the ATA's Curtis Whalen says they'll take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.