During the Seattle WTO protests, in 1999, the phrase "Turtles & Teamsters, Together At Last" (and variations) jumped from protest sign to guiding philosophy. It symbolically described hundreds of thousands Sierra Club activists (who dressed as sea turtles) and union members who marched to demand that human and environmental concerns be included in discussions of global Free Trade regimes.
"Turtles & Teamsters" also put a name to the increasingly common alliances between environmentalists and labor unions, which were no longer willing to accept that protecting the environment and jobs were mutually exclusive conditions. That potent alliance has formed around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and offers both hope and dangers.
In August 2006, Teamster reps at YearlyKos told me the Brotherhood "basically got kicked out of the ports when the trucking industry was deregulated and hiring owner-operators became the standard MO for the industry. The Teamsters ominously said that they were already laying to ground work to reorganize drayage drivers and 'we'll be back'." (LBP 10/19/2006) The following October, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have granted collective bargaining rights to drayage drivers, for the second year in a row. (ibid)
The March 29th edition of the Daily Breeze showed a mob of owner-operators at a Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports rally. Careful observers noted that each of the enthusiastic port truck drivers wore a green fleece with a Teamsters' emblem on the breast, but that not one of them was legally allowed to join the union.
It's the irony in that picture that forshadows an explosive political conflict in the coming months and years. The CCSP has proposed that the Ports limit access to pre-approved companies and their employees, a local-level policy change which would make an end-run around Sacramento. The change would radically alter the labor relations by ending the 'independent contracting', provide a mechanism for enforcing vehicle efficiency upgrades and shore up TSA security initiatives. It would also inevitably (and substantially) raise the cost of moving freight, which means the world's largest retailers and manufacturers will not be gentle.
In the short term, shippers will probably be able to keep the Ports from implementing the CCSP's proposals, but it comes with a risk. Teamsters are famous for their militancy and port truckers have been known to stage their own independent direct actions (i.e. shutting down the I-5 with a single abandoned truck). This is the beginning of an election cycle which many expect to obliterate the Republican Party, and an energized Democratic Party is looking at every conceivable cause to grow and activate its base. Allowing tens of thousands of immigrant truck drivers to unionize will be an easy issue support for Democratic insurgents, and an easy campaign promise to deliver once in power.
Toeing the line and refusing to negotiate has been a reliable breakwater for businesses and shippers keep down costs. Logistics industry insiders, however, predict a 'Perfect Storm' in 2008 and truckers in Long Beach may contribute to the tsunami which threatens to wipe out the deregulated transportation industry of the last 20 years.
For your reading pleasure:
- For cleaner US ports, cut truck fumes first? by the Christian Science Monitor
- Cleaning Up Trucks at California Ports Clears the Air and Improves Truckers' Lives by the California Progress Report
- Teamsters: California ports exploit truckers by eTrucker.com
Originally published as Teamsters & Turtles Target POLA/POLB, Wages & Pollution on Long Beach Politics.