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How Exploited "Independent Contractor" Truckers Drive Pollution in Our Ports

It's well-known that deregulation of the trucking industry has led to worse working conditions in the industry and lower safety standards on the road. But new coalitions are focusing on the way conditions in the trucking industry contribute to pollution that chokes trucking hubs like our ports.

A recent report found that that pollution from trucks coming into the Port of Oakland contributes directly to 1 in 5 West Oakland children having asthma. Because the trucks are driven by "independent contractor" truck drivers who make as little as $8 per hour, they don't have the capital to upgrade to clean emission trucks. And because such independent contractors are barred from forming labor unions, they can't bargain collectively to negotiate for higher rates to make such investments possible.

Reacting to exactly this problem in ports along the West Coast, coalitions involving public health, environmental, religious and labor groups have formed to advocate for cleaner trucks and safer working conditions. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the American Lung Association of California joined with local Sierra Club advocates to work with the ports unions to form the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports. They are modeling their solution based on the Port of Vancouver, which has already taken action to require that trucking companies using the port use trucks driven by employee-drivers, not independent contractors, improve wages, and upgrade environmental standards. 

The California Assembly Committee on Labor & Employment, chaired by Assemblymember Sandre Swanson, held a special hearing on September 20th to promote a plan to phase-out "owner-operators" in the ports by 2012 and reduce pollution in the ports by 80% in that five-year period.

The Broader Problem of Independent Contractors on the Roads: Similar problems of low pay and lower safety for the public plague the rest of the trucking industry. FedEx Ground has tried to build a low-wage workforce by categorizing its drivers as independent contractors, although a California Court of Appeals panel found that the company has abused the definition of independent contractors since FedEx controlled the drivers actions, even if the drivers were stuck paying for the upkeep of their trucks. An even larger class-action lawsuit by FexEx Ground workers in 35 states has been brought to federal court in Indiana.

The problem of misclassification of independent contractors has received special focus in the construction industry, including passage of bills such as Illinois's HB 1795 to tighten rules on when people must be given the full legal rights of being an employee. As the debates in West Coast ports and the lawsuits over FedEx workers show, focus on tightening independent contractor rules is increasingly moving onto our roadways to stop what some call "sweatshops on wheels".

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