Officials at the Port of Oakland have filed for an injunction against independent truckers who have twice forced the port to shut down since August.
Port Spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said the injunction is solely intended to prevent the truckers from obstructing the flow of cargo traffic. She said it would bar them from staging protests in roads and driveways outside the port’s terminals.
“The protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights,” she said. “They will continue to be allowed to conduct demonstrations as long as it doesn’t illegally block access to port facilities.”
Owners of perishable meat and crop cargoes fear that delays could cause spoilage and lost business, the port said in its court filings.
For their part, the truckers are frustrated by costly pollution regulations due to be implemented at the end of the year by the California Air Resources Board. They have also complained of long lines and low pay at the port, which is the fifth busiest in the country.
The truckers initially forced the port to shutdown during a demonstration that began on August 19. In response, the port filed a complaint stating the truckers were obstructing the flow of traffic on Middle Harbor Road, Maritime Street and Seventh Street. On October 17, four days before a second protest, the port secured a temporary restraining order against the truckers from Alameda County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Appel.
The port’s current effort would replace that restraining order with a more permanent injunction. The port is not seeking monetary damages. The truckers and the port are scheduled to meet in court for a hearing on November 19.
Attorney Dan Siegel, who represents two truckers identified by the port as protest organizers, argued the port’s actions constitute an “abuse of power.” He said the injunction would merely prohibit actions that are already illegal under state and local law.
“I think this is one of the ways in which they are trying to discourage the truckers from organizing and asserting their rights,” Siegel said.
Cesar Parra, one of two truckers named in the lawsuit, described it in similar terms.
“They’re trying to scare us,” he said. “They’re trying to divide us, and actually they are afraid of us because we’re getting a lot of power.”
The port says the injunction would clarify existing law for the benefit of all parties.
As independent contractors, the truckers are not recognized as workers under the National Labor Relations Act, nor are they represented by a union. Siegel, who works at the Oakland firm Siegel and Yee, said they have few options other than direct action when they want to change their working conditions.
“If they get out of hand, then they find themselves facing criminal prosecution or civil suits,” he said. “They are truly at the bottom of the barrel here.”
But Sandifur argued that disrupting the flow of commerce may prove counterproductive. The Port of Oakland is currently operating at roughly half capacity and faces stiff competition from other cargo hubs on the Pacific Coast. She cautioned that if cargo owners choose to re-route their goods to avoid delays, they may not return to Oakland.
“We want to keep the cargo here,” Sandifur said. “That’s how we keep trucking jobs here. That’s how we keep a lot of jobs here.”
Sandifur also contended that the port is particularly vulnerable to disruptions because so much of its commerce is in agriculture. The port handles roughly a quarter of U.S. agricultural exports, which are often perishable. Emails included in the court filings indicate that port officials were scrambling to placate cargo owners during the truckers’ protests this summer.
On August 21, Deputy Port Director Jean Banker received an email from Perry Bourne, Director of International Transportation and Rail Operations at Tyson Fresh Meats, a beef and pork subsidiary of Tyson, Inc. Bourne stated that Tyson relies on the Port of Oakland to handle its refrigerated products, which have a limited shelf life.
“We must get these labor issues behind us,” he wrote. “If we can’t consistently service our market, our customers have other country origins like Australia that would love to regain our market share.”
A Tyson spokesman did not respond to a reporter’s interview request before deadline.
In another email sent during the August protests, Curt Graham, who works in marketing for the California-based Farmers’ Rice Cooperative, worried the company’s customers would move their business elsewhere.
“What a mess!” Graham wrote. “My concern continues to be our Korean buyers and their patience with our failure to meet the contractual timing for cargo deliveries.”
Famers’ Rice distributes roughly a quarter of California’s rice harvest, sourced from about 700 Northern California farmers. It sends all of its international exports—to Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere—through the Port of Oakland.
In an interview this week, Graham said the firm has not begun to route its cargo through other ports, and that it would be difficult to do so. He said Farmers’ Rice is watching from the sidelines as the trucking controversy unfolds between parties over which it has little direct control.
“It affects our business,” he said. “We are being harmed by the lack of progress in these disputes.”