After forcing a one-day closure of the Port of Oakland over regulatory and wait-time complaints last week, independent truckers say they are pursuing negotiations with the California Air Resources Board, and have promised no further work stoppages through at least Monday, Nov. 4.
The drivers say the truce comes after Oakland Mayor Jean Quan agreed to broker talks between them and the state air quality agency. Truckers have been trying for months to negotiate an extension on potentially costly environmental regulations due to be implemented on the first of the year, protest organizers say.
“This is what forced us to go to this work stoppage,” said Frank Adams, a driver at the port and a member of the Port of Oakland Truckers Association, a group of truckers behind the recent demonstrations. He said the truckers met with Mayor Quan on Oct. 24. They are now leaning on the mayor for help with the deadline.
“We gave her ten days,” he said. “We told her there’s not going to be any work stoppages anymore until those ten days are up.”
Mayor Quan’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Port of Oakland is the fifth busiest container port in the United States. Much of its traffic is in agricultural products. It is the export hub for the Northern California wine industry, and for meat, dairy, fruit and nuts from the Central Valley. With the harvest season at hand and the holidays approaching, port officials say this is a critical time of the year – raising the stakes of any labor dispute.
Such battles are complicated by the sheer number of stakeholders involved. The Port of Oakland leases its docks to four terminal companies, who in turn oversee day-to-day operations at the seaport, working with organized labor, steamship companies, trucking companies and non-union, owner-operator truck drivers to move cargo. When a dispute arises, the various parties do not necessarily divide into neat factions.
Last week’s work stoppage began before dawn on Oct. 21, as roughly 100 owner-operator drivers set up demonstrations around the port. The fiercest protest was staged at the Oakland International Container Terminal, where about 20 truckers were joined by roughly 40 other activists, many of whom had met in Occupy Oakland actions.
By 8 a.m., several dozen Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies had pushed the protesters onto the shoulder of the road. They remained there throughout the day, hoisting pickets, chanting, and hurling verbal abuse at the police. By that afternoon, longshoremen were refusing to work and the demonstrations had forced the closure of the port.
The shutdown lifted when longshoremen returned to their posts for the 7:00 p.m. shift that evening. Mike Villeggiante, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, said his members started working only after an arbitrator from the Pacific Maritime Association ruled they were violating their contract by failing to do so.
Despite the port’s re-opening, demonstrations continued until Wednesday. Some drivers stayed home on Tuesday, slowing work at the port, but there were no further shutdowns.
Despite port officials’ urgent need to move cargo during the harvest season, frustrated truck drivers say their demands can’t wait. At the end of December, trucks with engines that don’t meet year 2007 emissions standards will be banned from the port under regulations from the California Air Resources Board. The drivers are demanding the port and the city help them negotiate a one-year extension of the impending deadline. They are also asking for state funding to help them purchase new trucks.
Adams said a used truck that complies with the regulations might cost between $40,000 and $50,000, plus up-front maintenance expenses, and many drivers have not yet upgraded their rigs.
“That could be 400 to 700 families in the Bay Area and Oakland out of work in one day,” he said.
Officials at the port say they do not know exactly how many trucks are already in compliance. That tally won’t be completed until after the Jan. 1 deadline. However, statistics from the state Air Resources Board indicate that as of August, more than two thirds of the roughly 5,900 trucks that serve ports and rail yards in Northern California had been upgraded, and the majority of those trucks operate at the Port of Oakland.
Port Spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said that since the emissions regulations were passed five years ago, the state, the port, and other parties have disbursed a total of $38 million to help truckers meet the requirements.
In 2008, a health assessment by the state Air Resources Board found that diesel pollution in West Oakland, the community closest to the port, was three times more severe than the Bay Area average. The pollution was causing an estimated 290 additional respiratory illnesses and 18 premature deaths each year in the neighborhood, as well as higher cancer rates. The study pinpointed trucks serving the port as a major source of the emissions.
Research conducted since then has indicated the pollution rules are beginning to work. In 2011, researchers from the University of California Berkeley reported that diesel pollution from port trucks had declined 50 percent from 2010 levels.
Truckers still calling for end to congestion
Independent drivers have also called for an end to long lines at the port, which they say force them to idle for as long as seven hours while waiting to pick up containers, burning precious fuel and frittering away time that could be more profitably spent delivering cargo.
“We don’t get paid for the hours and hours of waiting,” said East Oakland resident Herbert Olivares. “We don’t get paid squat. Nothing.”
Olivares and other drivers have also called for bathrooms inside the port’s terminals, where they say they have been forced to relieve themselves in bottles while they wait in line.
They say the congestion is most severe at the Oakland International Container Terminal, (OICT) which is owned by the private firm SSA Marine, a unit of Seattle-based Carrix Inc. But after last week’s protests, SSA Marine has satisfied one of their demands. On Friday, Oct. 25, the company gave some of the truckers a tour of new porta-potties installed at the terminal.
“To that extent, yes, they are trying to meet some of our demands,” said Frank Adams, of the Port of Oakland Truckers Association. “It’s a really cheap fix and it ain’t the one that we really want, but they did put in the bathrooms.”
Bob Watters, senior vice president at SSA Marine said in a telephone interview that the company has also taken steps to ease congestion. This summer, the company acquired two additional terminals at the port. The resulting mergers created a so-called “mega-terminal” that now occupies roughly a third of the terminal acreage at the port. But the merger also led to a logistical logjam, which created congestion and sparked a previous work-stoppage by the truckers in mid-August.
Watters, of SSA, says that congestion is no longer an issue.
“Things are moving quite well,” he said. “Initially it was a little bit slower as we started off the integration [of the terminals]. But now that’s been resolved.”
“Between ten being the worst and one being the best, they’re at nine, and before in August they were ten,” he said. “They got a long way to go. We got very big lines.”
With many stakeholders involved at the port, other perspectives vary.
ILWU 10 President Mike Villeggiante also said that conditions in the terminal had improved since August, partly as a result of a series of meeting between truckers, terminal operators, organized labor, port officials and other parties.
“Does everything run smooth every single day? No. But on the majority it has improved,” he said, noting that SSA had hired additional longshoremen at the terminal. “It is running good.”
In several letters, Port Director Chris Lytle has pushed for SSA Marine and other terminal operators to compensate truckers for congestion.
“Extensive terminal delays, when they occur, can be devastating to the livelihood of these drivers,” he wrote on Oct. 15, a week before the most recent work stoppage. He warned that if the terminal companies failed to take action, the results might include driver shortages, higher bills for people shipping goods through the port, lost cargo and “the significant costs of demonstrations and protests.”