Should low-paid truck drivers shoulder the cost of cleaning up pollution at Los Angeles harbor? That’s the question before a federal court this week in a case that is a major test of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to clean up the air in one of L.A.’s most polluted places, where trucks, trains and ships poison the air at great risk to the health of thousands of residents.
The issue goes far beyond polluted areas of the harbor communities of San Pedro and Wilmington. Trucks serving the harbor travel an area extending to the Inland Empire and beyond. Hard hit are the small cities in the Southeastern Los Angeles County industrial belt, which have high levels of pollution.
Initially, the harbor department proposed a Clean Trucks Program, to take effect in 2008, which would require the truck operators carrying goods in and out of the port to comply with strict air pollution control standards. But it was stopped when the truckers’ lobbying organization, the American Trucking Association, got a temporary injunction against the harbor department plan, The issue before the court this week is whether the temporary injunction should be made permanent.
If allowed to proceed, the harbor department plan would be expensive for the trucking companies. Trucking companies would pay for new trucks and anti-pollution fittings for old ones and to maintain the vehicles. Only companies awarded permits and drivers who worked for them would be allowed to work at the harbor.
The companies want to lease trucks to drivers, who would be “independent contractors.” The drivers would have to pay for maintenance out of their meager incomes. Trucking company opponents released a report last week saying that the income of port truck drivers is now about $10-$12 an hour. And if they somehow were able to save enough, they would be permitted to buy their used trucks.
Harbor department chief Geraldine Knatz said the trucking companies should be “responsible for the trucks and drivers they dispatch to our port.” The American Trucking Association wants the port ”‘to chase down those individual truckers—an enforcement measure that is neither practical nor realistic,” she said. Knatz said the best way to enforce pollution standards is to “hold trucking companies responsible for the trucks and drivers they dispatch to our port.”
The harbor department’s position is supported by a coalition of environmental groups and the Teamsters Union, It would like the drivers to be employed by trucking companies so the union can organize them.
In testimony to the harbor commission last week (provided to me by Coral Lopez, the coalition’s senior communications officer) truck driver Diego Lopez said, “I ended up working day and night and was taking home only a couple hundred dollars a week. Every week I had to pay $952 for the lease, the insurance, the fees and another $400 for fuel. I was left with very little. “
There are now about 10,000 truck drivers working at the harbor, the coalition said, down from 16,000 because of the recession. With work scarce, they are being asked to carry an unfair and heavy burden.
Behind the big fight over power rates is the electrical workers union, determined to make sure it has command over the thousands of new jobs that will be created in the next decade in the solar-renewable energy industry.
The city is not going broke. There’s no need for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to shut down city services two days a week beginning next week. The Department of Water and Power could give the city treasury the $73.5 million it needs. But that would wreck the deal the DWP and the powerful Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have to gain control over the burgeoning new energy industry.
Solar is going to be really big. It will be this century’s aerospace industry. Huge numbers of jobs will be created, ranging from highly technical manufacturing of solar cells and lithium batteries to less technical work of installing solar panels on the roofs of your home or business.
The industry and its jobs were central to the rate increase plan unveiled by the mayor March 15. He offered a two-part proposal. One was called the “Energy Cost Adjustment Factor.” This was a rate increase that is probably needed to pay for the coal that runs many of the city’s power plants. Coal prices are rising. The DWP needs the money to cover the increases—and to continue giving the city treasury the multi-million dollar payments it has been making for years to cover services other city departments supply the utility.
The second part was called the “Carbon Reduction Surcharge.” Never has the mayor or the DWP explained what this “surcharge” would do.
But the money probably would go to companies producing solar and renewable energies. Those companies have endorsed the mayor’s plan. They produce solar cells, energy storage devices and other materials.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has been working around the country to get jurisdiction over these new jobs. In Colorado, the union was a key player in passage of a solar panel law. In St. Paul, Minn, the local has been working with a company, iCell, and with the National Assn. of Electrical Contractors to teach workers the technology. The union efforts in L.A. are in line with what is happening elsewhere. The union wants the L.A. jobs created by the “Carbon Reduction Surcharge Fund.”
The possibilities are frightening. In Colorado, the union played a part in writing the requirements for solar power workers. This brings up the sticky question of who will be in charge of such a program in L.A. Must the Los Angeles technical workers in every solar startup be IBEW members? If they are not, will a non-union company be denied money from the “Carbon Reduction Surcharge Fund.”? And what about the handy homeowner who wants to go down to Home Depot, buy a solar kit and install it. Will the homeowner’s work be subject to a DWP inspector who is also an electrical workers union member?
These considerations aside, here’s what’s wrong with this. The depth of the recession is no time to tax homeowners and businesses to stimulate the growth of the solar industry. Wait until the recession has ended.
The city should just go for a minimum rate increase to pay the higher prices for coal and natural gas. This would give the DWP money for the city treasury.
Then, when Los Angeles residents can afford another rate increase, officials can go for an intelligent, well-planned and public effort to convert the DWP into an alternative energy utility.