Thursday, February 28, 2008

They rally around the family … with a pocketful of regs

If you know that reference, you’ve probably listened to Rage Against The Machine play songs like “Bulls on Parade” or “Fight the Power.”

The band railed against problems of the time and called for social justice and outrage and gained fame with its social activism.

Guitarist Tom Morello, who attended Harvard, was scheduled to attend the recent Long Beach Harbor Commission meeting to protest the port’s adoption of a concessionaire plan designed to cut emissions.

Each of the twin ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach have been considering an employee-only driver plan for months that would have effectively removed all owner operators from the port business, including local drayage trucks and long-haul drivers who make up a majority of Land Line readers.

Long Beach adopted a plan that allows owner-operators to continue working, provided they meet several conditions, including tagging their trucks with RFID chips and paying hundreds of dollars per truck annually.

For more on that, click here.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pushed the employee-only plan. A former labor organizer, Villaraigosa has reportedly failed the California bar four times.

Most mainstream news media have focused on Teamsters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other labor and environmental groups, but have thought little about the long-haul owner operators who haul 20 percent of cargo containers out of the ports.

To get reaction from someone other than labor organizers or metal/hip-hop/anarchist guitarists, I e-mailed a couple OOIDA members and got some interesting responses. Here’s what one Land Line reader had to say:

I think that this is NOT the American way.

The ports are public facilities in many aspects: funding for construction, for access, and for the mutual good. The concessionaire program treats the ports like a private country club – where only members are allowed in.

I would say that federal government regulation (however distasteful), would be preferred to THIS. No matter how diligent or long-standing an owner-operator has been in his years of working in the port, he’s out. He is out as far as his ability to work as he chooses; he must now be part of "the group." Join us, or leave the industry.

This is going to hurt the competitive situation of the region. This will limit competition and cause higher rates and lower productivity. This can be a benefit to the individual driver, so long as he does not mind losing his independence. After all, we know that union company drivers do have some benefits over owner-operators – paid vacation, etc. But America is about choices – and access – and this new program has neither.

We see this concessionaire mentality in some areas of our society, like food vendors at sports venues. There are far reaching differences, such as the need to regulate the food and deal with reputable vendors for the public health. Trucks are regulated by the DOT and are on the highways under the watchful eye of other law enforcement. Plus, the trucker/port relationship is business to business, not a consumer transaction.

While there are some arguments FOR this concessionaire program that appeal to many people, the downside of loss of freedom is too great. Our society allows differences and choices as part of its bedrock; this program ignores all of those in an attempt to make it “easy.” Far worse is the cry of “environmental soundness,” which is nebulous and puts a disproportionate burden upon these truckers, and away from other industry, the typical motorist, and motor sports. If our environment is in such peril that we must take this drastic step of controlling to the dot and title how truckers operate, then why do we still have NASCAR and NHRA? Why then should we not apply for a subject-to-approval travel permit anytime we want to fly on an airliner?

The condition of the trucks and drivers at the port is a reflection of the environment in which they operate. Their time is not valued, and the business chases the lowest price. Some businesses need to take the lead and change this industry. This truly is the sweatshop of our time; overworked, underpaid, exploited and hidden. Some shippers and consignees need to document the poor conditions and take them to the public. Then, raise their price to the consumer and say, "This is for the trucker.” We’re talking about $.15 on a pair of shoes, or $1.00 on a piece of furniture. They need to shame others into following suit. High-reaching, sure, but this is far better than just limiting the owner operators.

Whatever strict conditions they put on truckers, I can meet. If there is one trucker left in America able to operate, (due to TWIC, HME, background check, driving record, education, experience), that can be me. I do want the industry to be much better. I don’t think that will happen from bottom-up; I think it must be from the top-down. If company drivers earned $150,000 per year, we’d see a much different trucking industry today. If owner-operators grossed triple per year what they currently do, we'd see less operating while fatigued, better equipment, more professionalism.

If many of the “shady operators” are run out of business, we can argue that will leave the quality operators standing. But, it leaves the fleets – which are not any better once we get past the surface. In reality, the owner-operator is the one with commitment and dedication for public safety. The public, the customers, reward this with their ongoing race for cheaper rates, whatever the cost.

Look at the ports now; who is running them? A few niche companies, lots of owner operators under lease, and that’s about it. The manufacturers & retailers, many of whom have their own fleets of trucks (think Exxon, Akzo Nobel, Wal-Mart) all outsource their port drayage, and for good reason. It’s a ridiculously run segment of transportation, where the trucker is left to suffer. If there was any degree of “customer service” to the trucker, such as we see from car rental companies to their customers, we'd see truckers able to pickup and drop off more quickly. Higher productivity IS a rate increase. Truckers see their time wasted by container yards, rails, and ports with impunity. Beat down. What a joke.

Other than that, I don't have much to say ...

I can’t add much more to what this reader wrote.

Stay tuned to the port situation, because in California, the drama only gets better.