Employee-driver proposal in L.A. slowed by politics

| 2/11/2008

Truckers, one federal agency and attorneys on both sides of a labor-centered debate may have to hold their horses.

It appears the harbor commissions at the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles will wait until at least March to vote on a new requirement that truck drivers entering the ports be company employees.

The commissions were originally scheduled to vote this month on the final piece of a three-phase clean truck program.

The program currently includes a ban on older trucks and the purchase of new engines with container fees. The commissions were set to vote on the third phase – limiting access to company employees driving trucks owned by licensed concessionaires.

“We’re just still working on it,” said Theresa Adams Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles.

The clean truck plan, and its combination of environmental and labor issues has drawn interest from around the nation, as groups such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association track whether similar efforts will be proposed at other ports.

The final phase of the plan appears to have encountered a potent mix of political pressure and legal threats with the Teamsters Union-backed employee and concessionaire plans.

The port commissions already have approved bans on older trucks that would begin in fall 2008, and container fees to purchase new engines. The third – and most controversial – phase would require all drivers entering the ports to be company employees, and work for a select group of trucking companies that obtain a special license to operate at the ports.

The third phase has drawn disagreement from several Long Beach port harbor commissioners who have questioned why forcing truck drivers to be employees of a motor carrier will make the air cleaner.

Los Angeles City government has strongly supported the employee-driver portion of the plan, and several Los Angeles Port Harbor Commissioners have attended Port of Long Beach meetings.

The Federal Maritime Commission is closely watching the clean truck program to ensure any such plan protects the free flow of commerce. Officials with the FMC have met with OOIDA leaders on the port issue.

And then the attorneys enter the equation.

The ATA and the National Resources Defense Council have threatened legal action on each side of the clean truck debate. The NRDC has said it will sue Long Beach if it doesn’t approve the employee-driver portion of the plan within 90 days. Council officials say they will reportedly ask a federal court to make a “port czar” oversee diesel pollution issues at the port.

“We’re kind of at a stalemate at this point in time,” said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the ATA’s Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference. “There is a lot of legal activity swirling around the edges whether or when the employee-driver plan is triggered.”

The ATA says its own legal action could slow port clean truck plans by at least 18 months, which could in effect defer authority to the recently approved California Air Resources Board plan.

CARB’s plan requires all drayage trucks to be retrofitted to meet 1994 model year emission standards or newer, with 1994 through 2003 engines being required to have a level 3 retrofit by Dec. 31, 2009.  By Dec. 31, 2013, all drayage trucks will be required meet 2007 emission standards.

“If the ports don’t get something moving right now, then their plan becomes moot in about 18 months or less,” Whalen said. “At that point, you don’t need two plans.”

Groups such as the NRDC appear to be less concerned about the environment than they do appeasing the Teamsters, Whalen said.

“Since they’re not suing L.A. – we see this as just a very unveiled threat of legal action if the port doesn’t act the way they want them too,” Whalen told Land Line. “NRDC is on record as supporting the employee-driver rule. It certainly makes one be suspicious of their ulterior motives. Clearly this has nothing to do with the environment.”

Whalen said he also wonders what legal actions could stop the concessionaire point, which in one proposal would be slanted to benefit companies with large financial assets and high numbers of employees.

“They’re now not going to call it a concession plan, they’ll call it a permit or license plan,” Whalen told Land Line. “It’s what is in it that causes potential legal action. We start getting into legal problems because this is traffic that is in interstate commerce, and they do not as local harbor commissioners have any authority to restrict commerce. A harbor commission has none.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer