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Truckers’ Protests Over Labor Law Block Access to Oakland’s Port

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For days, a convoy of truckers has blocked the roads that serve the Port of Oakland, crippling a significant West Coast cargo hub already hampered by global supply chain disruptions.

The protest is supposed to send a message to Gov. Gavin Newsom: Keep the drivers clear of a California labor law that they are saying threatens their livelihood.

The truckers, primarily independent owners and operators, are demonstrating in opposition to Assembly Bill 5, a law passed in 2019 that requires gig staff in several industries to be classified as employees with advantages, including minimum wage and time beyond regulation pay.

Together with a coalition of trade groups, the truckers want Mr. Newsom to issue an executive order laying aside the appliance of the 2019 law to their work and to bring labor and industry to the table to barter a path forward.

A representative of Mr. Newsom said the state would “proceed to partner with truckers and the ports to make sure the continued movement of products to California’s residents and businesses, which is critical to all of us.”

Smaller protests were organized last week at the dual ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In an announcement, Danny Wan, executive director of the Port of Oakland, said he understood the displays of frustration. But he warned against more delays surrounding the ports, a significant link in a supply chain already hemorrhaging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Covid-19 lockdowns in China.

“Prolonged stoppage of port operations in California for any reason will damage all the companies operating on the ports and cause California ports to further suffer market share losses to competing ports,” he said.

When Mr. Newsom signed the measure into law, it received immediate rebukes from corporations like Uber and Lyft, whose leaders argued that the law would change their businesses so severely that it’d well destroy them.

The state law codified a California Supreme Court ruling from 2018 that said, amongst other things, that individuals should be classified as employees if their work was an everyday a part of an organization’s business.

Each Uber and Lyft, together with DoorDash, quickly lobbied for a ballot measure that might allow gig economy corporations to proceed treating their drivers as independent contractors.

California voters passed the measure, Proposition 22, in 2020, but last 12 months a California Superior Court judge ruled that it was unconstitutional. Uber and Lyft quickly appealed and have been exempt from complying with Assembly Bill 5 while the court proceedings play out.

But that wasn’t the case for the truckers. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to listen to a challenge by California truckers, who under the brand new law are viewed as employees of the trucking corporations they do business with.

Nearly 70,000 California truck drivers work as independent owners and operators, ferrying goods from ports to distribution warehouses. Trucking corporations and the protesting drivers argue — as Uber and Lyft did — that if Assembly Bill 5 is applied to them, the drivers may have less flexibility in when and the way they work.

Proponents of the law say the businesses could simply take the drivers on as full- or part-time employees and proceed to supply them flexible schedules.

A majority of port truckers in California are independent operators and don’t work for a single company. A smaller variety of drivers are unionized and are represented primarily by the Teamsters.

Matt Schrap, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, a trade group for transportation corporations serving West Coast ports, said the “frustration is that there isn’t a pathway for folk to have independence.”

“That frustration is boiling over into motion,” Mr. Schrap said.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former state lawmaker who was an architect of the labor bill, rejected the concept applying the law to the trucking industry could be a disservice to drivers.

“These truck corporations have a business model that’s misclassifying staff,” said Ms. Gonzalez Fletcher, who’s about to take over as head of the California Labor Federation. “How they’ve been operating has been illegal.”

The trucker protests come because the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is engaged in contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, representing the shipping terminals at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle.

Farless Dailey III, president of Local 10 of the longshore union, said that for their very own safety, his members weren’t attempting to get through the truck blockade.

“They don’t receives a commission after they don’t get in,” he said. “But we’re not going to place our members in harm’s solution to go through the road of truckers.”

Officials on the port said the biggest marine terminal had been closed since Monday due to protests. Three other smaller terminals have operated, but with a limited capability.

Christopher S. Tang, a distinguished professor on the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management, who studies supply chains, said the shutdowns on the Port of Oakland mustn’t — for now — cause major issues for consumers.

“The impact is not going to be significant within the short term,” he said. “Many retailers have stockpiled inventory.”

On Thursday, German Ochoa, a trucker who lives in Oakland, arrived on the port, as he had on daily basis this week.

As horns from semitrucks blared within the background, Mr. Ochoa said by phone that he was standing shoulder to shoulder with other truckers. Some held poster boards that read, “Take down AB 5!!!” and “AB 5 Has Got to Go!,” he said.

“That is taking away my independence,” Mr. Ochoa said. “It’s my right to be an independent driver.”

Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.

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