From Oakland to DC for Clean Air & Good Jobs! Part Two: Congressional Champions Stick Up to Industry for Port Drivers & Communities

Oakland residents are among some 87 million Americans who live in port-polluted U.S. regions with disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, and respiratory illnesses that claim thousands of lives each year.  In a previous article we told you about our work with the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports to restore stability to our Ports system to improve air quality in port-polluted low-income communities.  And in a recent CEH action alert, we asked you to urge your legislators to equip port authorities to protect their drivers, the environment, and public health and safety.

Your letters and voices joined the Oakland delegation and over 75 CCSP and Coalition for Healthy Ports representatives from all over the country to fight for clean air and good jobs. Representative Nadler of New York will be sponsoring a bill to amend the federal legislation so that ports can set environmental and health labor standards for port trucking.  Why?  Because this will move the burden of environmental clean-up from the low-wage, immigrant drivers to the companies that profit from our ports — the shippers.

As part of the Washington DC trip to fight for clean air and good jobs, CEH joined port truck drivers and the nationwide coalition in a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Highways and Transit Subcommittee on the issue of port trucking and pollution.  The hearing featured two panels.  The first consisted of staff from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the second of stakeholders from industry, labor, and environment.  Congressional officials, consisting of primarily Democratic members and one Republican then asked questions of both panels and discussed the issues for three hours.  Before the fireworks were over, Subcommittee Chair Representative Pete DeFazio (D-OR) made a bold and long-overdue promise:  a full investigation of the legal and economic abuses of port drivers, more than likely in conjunction with the House Education and Labor Committee (chaired by California’s own Representative George Miller).

Doug Bloch, with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters reported:

“The hearing featured testimony by LA port driver Jose Covarrubias, who stood his ground as the trucking industry attempted to smear him as a bad businessman and a liar.  Jose showed the committee his leases and two of his paychecks, one in which he netted only $96 for a full week’s work and another in which he actually ended up owing the company money for the privilege of hauling freight for them.  The industry actually flew his former boss in to try to debunk his testimony.  Our Coalition did a great job making a powerful case for ports to have the necessary authority to restructure port trucking to ensure that companies are accountable for their drivers and trucks.  Potter explained clearly and passionately how the trucking industry has turned the drivers into modern indentured servants, or as Representative Nadler put it – ‘in what construction of the English language is this not serfdom?’”

Accustomed to getting its way in DC, the shipping industry’s representatives appeared blindsided not to mention plain scared that Congress is finally taking a close look at the questionable ‘independent contractor’ employment relationship between trucking companies and drivers.  Bad news for the shippers, but excellent news for truckers and people who spend any time near ports.  Congress is getting to the heart of the issue that plagues this industry, the issue behind not only the industry’s labor abuses, but also its devastating pollution.

It was great to see our legislative representatives stand with drivers and residents instead of industry.  After three years of CEH involvement in the campaign for clean and safe ports, it is really rewarding to see that congressional members seem to “get it”  — without changing the system, we will not get a safe environment and decent and fair jobs.  While the legal battle between the American Trucking Association (ATA) and the Ports of LA and Long Beach will continue, so too will our work with Congress to protect Port communities and drivers.

Stay tuned for an update on the legal battle, local struggles (and wins) for our port drivers, and how to thank our congressional champions and encourage them to continue to fight for clean air and good jobs!