On the Waterfront

A radical labor-green idea at the ports of Southern California.

The Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif.

If you wanted to unionize Wal-Mart, where would you start? Given the company’s gift for stymieing organizers at its stores and warehouses, you might look elsewhere, say, at the drivers who truck their merchandise to the warehouses from ports, where it arrives from overseas.

And what if you wanted to clean up those ports, which in Southern California spew more pollution than a refinery plus a power plant plus 500,000 cars? (article purchased required) You might look to those same drivers, because their trucks account for 30 percent to 40 percent of that lung-killing pollution.

Those are the seeds of a quiet but hugely significant labor-green combined effort to upend the harbor trucking business at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Their goal is to replace 15,000 old and dirty trucks with cleaner 2007 models. The problem they’ve encountered is that most of those trucks are owned by drivers—most of them Latino immigrants—who make about $12 an hour. These are independent contractors at the bottom of the harbor food chain, and they can’t afford to upgrade their own rigs. And so a coalition of labor and environmental groups is pushing for the port authorities to change the rules: Trucking companies will be allowed to operate within the ports’ gates only if their vehicles meet strict new pollution standards—and if they hire their drivers as employees, with the attendant benefits.

It’s a radical restructuring of the market. And if the ports approve it in a vote later this month, the plan could set a pattern for the rest of the country. Southern California’s ports are three times the size of New York and New Jersey’s. Forty percent of U.S. imports come through them—among them many of the shipments from Asia. Where these ports go on allocating the cost of cutting pollution, others are likely to follow. And if the port truckers can become employees, they could join a union—and that could help galvanize the workers at the box stores to whom they deliver—Wal-Mart and Target and the rest.

So, you can imagine who’s on which side here: Opposing the hire-the-drivers part of the cleanup plan are the shipping carriers, the trucking industry, and (from behind the scenes) big-box stores like Wal-Mart. No surprises there—the costs will fall on them. Pushing for the restructuring is Change To Win, created in 2005 when the AFL-CIO split up, by seven unions (including the SEIU and the Teamsters) seeking to put more money and muscle into organizing. By tying the drivers’ cause to a clean-air campaign, labor has been able to pull in environmental groups, and vice versa. For the most part, these different parts of the progressive world tend to support one another more on paper than on the streets. But in this case, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have been as committed as the union folks are.

Once the battle lines were drawn, and to figure out what the ports should do and how it all might work, the port commissioners hired John Husing, an economist and player in the California political scene. His analysis, presented in September, rests on the premise that prices for the delivery of cargo must rise to cover the cost of cleaning up the smog and soot. In economists’ terms, harbor pollution is the big “externality” of shipping freight. It’s a cost that’s not factored into the price of doing business, but instead is shunted onto the people who live near the ports—who have to put up with high rates of asthma and premature death.

So, is forcing the companies to hire their truck drivers as employees the best way to weave the cleanup into the cost of doing business? Husing is agnostic. But he agrees that the drivers’ wages need to rise. At the moment, because of deregulation at the ports in the 1970s, they’re at the bottom of their own industry, where wages average $16 to $20 an hour. And Husing recognizes that the trucks are the leverage the port authorities have over the larger players. “The only control you have is over the weakest link, and you’re pressuring them to force a price increase on the strongest link: the ocean shipping lines and the cargo owners,” he says.

Ultimately, the price of freight will go up because of the cleanup: Husing estimates hefty rate increases and says that in the first year, upgrading the ports’$2 16,000 trucks will cost $1.1 billion. But spread out over all the goods being shipped, the markup for consumers could be tiny, the labor groups argue—a few cents on a pair of sneakers or piece of clothing. The cleanup also is projected to produce longer-term economic benefit: reduced respiratory ailments and lost days of work and school, for a regional boost of as much as $1 billion a year over the first five years, according to Husing. A study commissioned by the local green-labor coalition came up with similar numbers. The government would also save on services. Only 10 percent of the 16,800 truck drivers currently have health insurance; turning them into employees would presumably change that and shift their medical costs to the private sector.

Still, over and above the cost-benefit analysis, and given the cleanup plan’s remarkable sweep, the proposal needs serious political will behind it. The labor-green folks have been talking for months to the port commissioners and the offices of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and Mayor Bob Foster in Long Beach. Opponents are pushing back. Politically, they’re in a somewhat tricky position: Since it’s hard to be in favor of dirty air, they’re arguing that they’ll back a cleanup, but just not this cleanup.

They also have a legal card to play: the threat to sue the ports for requiring drivers to have employee status, on the grounds that the mandate would be an anti-competitive ban that would violate federal shipping law. Even if that’s a losing legal argument, as the labor groups believe, tie-ups in court could slow down the cleanup plan for years and make it cost more.

And then there’s the question of transition: How do the ports go about retrofitting and replacing thousands of trucks in a short time span? How do they keep everything running smoothly enough that the shippers and the cargo buyers don’t take their business elsewhere? There’s lots to sort through here. But it’s not often that a local branch of government gets to try out a big, bold policy experiment that shifts wealth from powerful multinational corporations to several thousand immigrant truck drivers. And makes it easier for Californians to breathe deeply, too.