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The Ports Challenge

I hate to think we've become a country that has lost the concept of public purpose, a country that allows corporations to poison the people who live nearby. But apparently they're too much for the trucking industry.
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I hate to think we've become a country that has lost the concept of public purpose, a country that allows corporations to poison the people who live nearby, or a country that no longer expects workers to be paid a decent wage for a day's work.

Those are modest ideas. But apparently they're too much for the trucking industry, at least in Southern California and around our nation's busiest ports.

Right now, my union, environmental groups and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are battling industry polluters to protect a truck replacement program at the Port of Los Angeles that has reduced deadly emissions by close to 80 percent.

We want the trucking companies to buy and maintain clean new trucks. We also want them to pay their truck drivers a fair wage and the employment taxes that go with it. The trucking companies would prefer the federal government protect them from those obligations.

It's a fight that's spilling over to seaports all over the country. And our coalition is getting help from the mayors of New York, Newark, Seattle, Oakland and Broward County, Florida as well.

As Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times writes:

"The battle has intensified as federal officials press ports to adhere to clean-air regulations. Seaports from Newark to Miami to Seattle are confronting the same issue: who should pay for the cleaner trucks?"

If you've ever been to the Port of Los Angeles, you won't soon forget the sight. Thousands upon thousands of trucks idle along the roads that snake through the mammoth facility, clogging the cargo terminals and nearby roads.

The trucks are waiting to haul containers from China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. As the volume of furniture, clothing and electronics from Asia has increased, the congestion at the port has worsened. So has the diesel exhaust.

Port trucks don't just cause air pollution in Southern California. They're a huge contributor to air pollution at our nation's busiest trade hubs,

Poverty is another byproduct of the ports. Truck drivers are paid by the load, but not much. They're called "independent contractors," so they bear the cost of their own taxes for Social Security, Medicare and workers' compensation. If they're hurt or sick and can't work, they go without pay. Their trucks have been called sweatshops on wheels.

We've worked with environmentalists, Mayor Villaraigosa and the port authority to require trucking companies to legitimately employ their work force and to pay for clean new rigs. We think that's reasonable. The truck drivers are treated like employees so they should be paid like employees. Drivers earn $29,000 a year or less and cannot afford low-emission trucks that cost between $100,000 and $175,000.

The American Trucking Associations, a Beltway lobby, wants Southern California drivers and taxpayers to pay for new trucks. And they don't want to have to actually hire the drivers who work for them. So they're legally challenging the port's authority to set standards for companies that use the port. A court date has been set for April 20.

Ports are what economist James Galbraith would call "systems constructed originally for public purposes and serving the middle class."

The whole point of building and maintaining public works -- such as container ports -- is to stimulate commerce and benefit all Americans. Not just the greedy few.

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