Fighting for a Real Solution at the Oakland Port

For the last three decades Oakland residents have been suffering from premature death, asthma, cancer and heart disease as a result of port pollution. To alleviate the health impacts the industry should have replaced old polluting trucks with new clean trucks.

However, industry litigation led to a band-aid solution that instead requires individual port truck drivers and tax payers to pay for the cost of cleaning up industry’s mess. Trucking companies got off scot free by continuing to claim that their employees are “contractors.” Today truck drivers are losing their hard-earned money, their homes and the few trucks that were purchased or retrofitted to meet air standards are gradually falling apart.

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports is determined to continue fighting for a real solution that will finally hold the polluting industry responsible for their workers and the long overdue clean up.


Posts From Oakland

Deadly Dangers in Port Trucking Exposed, Again

A jury awarded a $14 million injury settlement in the gruesome accident at the SSA Marine terminal at the Port of Long Beach that forever changed life for a 42-year-old truck driver. In February 2009, Felipe Curiel miraculously survived after suffering massive injuries from being pancaked in his rig by a cargo container at the hands of an SSA crane operator. While his career ended that day, today he manages to walk with leg braces and a cane.

SSA, the global shipping and transportation outfit jointly owned by Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, is no stranger to negligence or traumatic accidents at their terminals. Just days before Mr. Curiel was saved by the “jaws of life,” fellow port truck driver Pablo Garcia, a 40-year-old father of three, was crushed to death in a preventable accident involving a forklift and steel port machinery. The story made national headlines and was the subject of a special report in Univision’s leading television news magazine “Primer Impacto.” The Garcia family also successfully brought suit against the Seattle-based port giant SSA Marine, the parent to the large West Coast trucking company, Shippers Transport Express, and recently settled for an undisclosed amount.

These are not isolated incidents but rather everyday hazards in the lives of the ten thousands of truck drivers that work at U.S. ports. While rare monetary settlements might bring some assistance and closure to the Garcia and Curiel families, skilled workers responsible for commanding the wheel of container rigs weighing up to 80,000 lbs. remain highly vulnerable to job-related tragedies. Their employers’ favored business model – illegal subcontracting – means drivers lack the basic workplace protections they need such as workers’ compensation and safety whistleblower protections. Wrongful employment status further excludes the men and women who work in one of America’s most dangerous industries from a critical form of recourse: government safety agencies cannot investigate injuries they may suffer on the job, permitting their companies to shed any scrutiny, let alone liability.

Abdul Khan, a father of two young girls who has hauled cargo in and out of the Port of Oakland for six years, chillingly put it this way: “All day long we are surrounded by heavy machinery that can take a limb or our lives in the blink of an eye, but we don’t even have the protections that will keep us or the public safe.”

Advocates helped ensure Garcia and Curiel’s catastrophes were widely publicized, but countless other “under the radar” injuries and accidents demonstrate a clear-cut need for the government to establish and enforce real safety and labor reforms in the port trucking industry. The urgency has reached California’s Assembly in the form of AB 950, the Truck Driver Employment and Public Safety Protection Act. Co-sponsored by Assembly speaker John Pérez and Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, the bill would require port drivers to be treated as employees of the trucking or shipping companies that arrange for or engage these workers’ services. No longer would drivers be denied workers’ compensation, disability benefits, or be retaliated against for voicing safety concerns and violations.

AB 950 is a step in the right direction to bringing all port drivers closer to justice.


HELLO, MY NAME IS: EMPLOYEE!

Assembly Bill (AB) 950, the Truck Driver Employment and Public Safety Protection Act, easily cleared the California State Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee Wednesday afternoon. Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Sandré Swanson (D-Alameda), the committee chair, introduced the legislation to curb widespread illegal sub-contracting, known as “employee misclassification” in the port trucking industry.

The green light brings port truck drivers one step closer in their fight to rightfully be recognized as employees of the trucking or shipping companies that arrange for or engage these workers’ services. AB-950 would bring justice to port truck drivers by extending them the rights to workers’ compensation, disability insurance, Social Security, and minimum wage protection.

Twenty-one year port trucking veteran Manuel Rivas, who previously worked for a major West Coast trucking company called Shippers Transport that is half owned by Goldman Sachs,  exposed the shameless misclassification scheme at CA ports by delivering a powerful testimony to the committee hearing.

“It was very important for me to go to Sacramento to let the state politicians know about the port truck driver reality in California,” stated Manuel Rivas. “Thousands of drivers across the state have already signed petitions demanding our employee rights. We are employees who have been denied our rights. It is time to stop these injustices.”

The testimony by Manuel affirms what the nation’s leading employment law experts have recently published in a new report titled The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution, and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports. Port drivers like Manuel are vulnerable to illegal employment classification schemes that subject them to low non-negotiable wages, frequent safety violations, and little autonomy from the employers who dictate their financial constraints.

The passage of AB-950 would place California at the forefront of ending the misclassification swindle taking place at ports nationwide. AB 950 now moves for consideration to the full State Assembly.


WALL STREET SHENANIGANS AT THE PORTS

From Wall Street to the America’s ports, working families can’t catch a break from tax cheating corporations – and a top-ranking California Assemblymember calls them out in an op-ed in this week’s Oakland Tribune, while highlighting legislation aimed at taking the “trickery out of trucking.”

The already notorious Goldman Sachs - who received $23 billion from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department but only paid 1.1% of its 2008 income in taxes after raking in $2.3 billion in profit - also has its tentacles wrapped around port truck drivers and their families. The infamous firm owns half of Seattle-based SSA Marine, a transportation outfit that owns major port terminals in the United States and around the world and runs one of the largest trucking companies in California and the West Coast.

And since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it’s no wonder that while Goldman Sachs was forcing working families out of their homes during the mortgage meltdown, port trucking companies like SSA were driving port truckers into bankruptcy and foreclosures.  By using illegal sub-contracting, known as “employee misclassification,” these companies not only dodge taxes but they also sidestep basic corporate responsibility towards public safety. Currently truck drivers lack fundamental employee protections including the ability to report safety concerns – like the use of faulty equipment to move hazardous loads through public streets – without suffering retaliation or termination.

The concern over the impact on both workers and public safety recently reached our state’s capital when Assembly Speaker John Pérez and Assemblyman Sandré Swanson introduced AB 950, the Truck Driver Employment and Public Safety Protection Act. AB 950 would specifically require port truck drivers to be treated as employees of the trucking or shipping companies who arrange for or engage these workers’ services, so they will be protected under California’s workplace and safety laws.

To curb tax dodging in the port economy and improve public and worker safety, Assemblymember Swanson, who is also the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment, used Tax Week to highlight the legislation. In the op-ed, Swanson points out that  “Drivers mislabeled as “independent contractors” are paid low, nonnegotiable wages and are denied protections and benefits that most workers receive from their employers including workers’ compensation, disability, Social Security and the minimum wage. Meanwhile, the companies skirt state and federal payroll taxes.”

Swanson ends his op-ed by sending a clear and strong message: “Gaming the system, Goldman Sach’s Wall Street style is not welcome at our trade hubs, one of the state’s most valuable economic engines.”  AB 950 is expected to be heard on May 4th in the State Capitol.


Neither Independent nor a Family Man: Will’s Story

Will Cantrell is as proud of the work he performs to keep America’s economy moving as he is appalled at the conditions his industry creates for him and his co-workers.

Like most port drivers, Will is called an “independent contractor.” But he is prohibited from hauling for more than one company, he told USA Today, which reported on the widespread scam to cheat on taxes and rob workers of basic protections. Will’s company deducts $1,200 a month from his paycheck for use of their truck and pays him non-negotiable rates. On average, he puts up another $800 weekly for fuel and insurance. His paychecks are always a surprise, and usually disappointing after a 57-60 hour workweek.

So Will appeared at the last Oakland Port meeting. He asked commissioners, how can you let this industry I have trained for, invested in, and dedicated my life to systematically short-change the men and women who help make it profitable?

A fellow 25-year truck driver then detailed findings of a new three-port survey and analysis. Longer Hours, Lower Wages & Little Hope is the first snapshot of drivers’ economic outlook since industry crippled U.S. ports’ efforts to set new environmental and operational standards to clean up the sector. Oakland officials were tight-lipped after learning 25% of their drivers had declared bankruptcy, been evicted and/or foreclosed on since operating a new or retrofitted truck.  In contrast, LA Harbor Commissioners couldn’t stop asking questions after a recent similar presentation.

Will revealed how he makes ends meet: Forgo the dream of having a family. The 38-year-old has deemed himself an ineligible bachelor, for having a wife and children under these financial circumstances would be “irresponsible.” He gave up his own apartment and lives with three roommates to keep expenses down.

But a resolute Will vowed to transform his industry rather than quit it. He is determined to regain collective bargaining rights in port trucking. In the meantime, he wore a homemade shirt with the words “End Sweatshops on Wheels” for the occasion.


CA Attorney General Harris Files Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Support of the LA Clean Truck Program

Attorney General Kamala Harris

Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the award-winning Clean Truck Program at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Attorney General Harris’ critical endorsement provides yet another boost in the case to secure clean air and green jobs at the nation’s largest port.

The amicus brief urges the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to preserve the original district court’s decision in favor of the Clean Trucks Program and argues that the Port of Los Angeles as a market participant bears the right to curb pollution as its business expands. For years, port adjacent communities suffered some of worst air quality in the LA region due to dirty trucking operations at the port.

The support of the new Attorney General deals another blow to the American Trucking Associations’ stubborn efforts to stop the sustainment of better air quality in and around the ports.