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From the U.S. Social Forum: A Tricky Road to a Healthier Future

by Kari Lydersen
DETROIT—Eddie is a California trucker. He’s been a trucker for two decades, and he used to be able to make a solid living and still have time to spend with his family. But in recent years, since deregulation of the port trucking industry and a massive “race to the bottom” fueled by retailers looking for rock-bottom shipping prices, he sometimes makes less than $100 a week working 14 to 18 hours a day.

As explained in a four-hour series of panels at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit Friday, Eddie is a perfect example of why different communities, interest groups and movements need to come together to fight for human rights and dignity – on pragmatic policy and political levels that often make this goal much more complicated than it might sound.

As the severe health effects of diesel emissions have become better understood, strong movements to clean up air emissions from trucks (and ships and equipment) in east and west coast ports have developed. That led to the implementation of state rules that have helped reduce the air pollution that disproportionately affects low income and minority people living around ports.

But the clean trucks rules, paired with a dysfunctional, highly exploitative trucking system, mean Eddie and hundreds of other truckers like him are caught in a vise between trying to improve the environment and simply trying to make a living. (Read my previous blog on this situation here).

Port truckers essentially work for large companies. They buy their own trucks or lease them from trucking companies, often theoretically in lease-to-buy programs that almost never result in actual ownership. They are told when and where to haul cargo.

But they are classified – “misclassified” as they charge – as independent contractors, without rights to workers compensation, benefits or job stability. They often spend hours waiting for loads, doing maintenance on their trucks and other things related to the job, but that time is not paid. When they do the math, many make only a few dollars an hour.

Eddie has filed for bankruptcy and is afraid his house will be foreclosed. Sometimes his family doesn’t have money for groceries. He and his wife have high blood pressure and can’t afford medication. And he couldn’t allow his son to play high school football because he knew he couldn’t pay the medical bills if the boy were injured.

Eddie participated in a voluntary truck replacement program to buy a newer truck with better pollution control than his older rig, even though it sent him into much debt. “I wanted to do my part,” he said. But then even with the newer truck, he failed an emissions test, and had to pay for expensive retrofits. He got a $5,000 grant, but still owed $10,000 or more out of pocket. He thinks the retrofits were done poorly, as he ended up smelling strong gasoline fumes, getting dizzy and suffering burning eyes as he sat in his truck cab.

At the U.S. Social Forum, as at similar meetings at Labor Notes and other conferences in recent years, environmental and workers' rights advocates, truckers, warehouse workers, community residents and others with a stake in “goods movement” discussed how environmental protection reforms without attendant labor reforms can be devastating for workers (and in some ways vice versa). Without mandates that protect truckers’ rights – for example by requiring companies to correctly classify them and treat them as employees – truckers bear a huge financial burden for reducing pollution while the myriad companies making money off the transport of goods get off scot free. 

“I’m all for cleaning up the air – that’s why I participated in the truck replacement program,” he said. “But I can’t keep going into debt. I feel like I’m in a bottomless pit falling further and further behind.”

Discussion during the Social Forum workshop highlighted how complicated working for mutually beneficial reform can be when working within constraints and realities of our current system. The east and west coast clean ports coalitions are calling for federal legislation that would enshrine the right of individual port authorities or municipalities to regulate the trucking contracts and other conditions of their port traffic. The model they envision would require truckers be employees of companies receiving port concessions, to avoid exactly the situation Eddie finds himself in.

But some advocates worried such standards would be a blow to independent truckers at smaller ports without such cut-throat competition who truly want to be independent – who in their words are “living the American dream” of being their own bosses.

Ultimately the proponents of a federal law note that since individual ports could set their own standards, smaller ports might choose to continue to work with independent contractors or otherwise find a way to preserve truckers’ feeling of independence while protecting their rights. 

Such conversations are exactly the type of thing the U.S. Social Forum aimed to foster – dialogues ranging from the nuts-and-bolts to the big picture among people with common and also competing interests, but with a shared commitment to a better world. 

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