An “Unholy” Alliance

Roughly 5,000 people showed up to a rally I spoke at last week. The rally followed the aptly named, “Hollywood to the Docks March,” a 3-day, 28 mile march designed to highlight the struggle of workers and communities throughout LA.

While nearly 200 people participated in the entire three day march, the rally consisted of a veritable who’s who of community and environmental groups working to make the Port of LA a cleaner, safer place to work, both for employees and the port residents who live next door. At the rally, I found myself in the unlikely position of addressing the crowd right before James Hoffa, Jr., General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Labor and environmentalists have often clashed in the past, but when it comes to supporting the Port of LA’s clean trucks plan, we find common ground. NRDC’s interest in changing this situation is obvious:  we want to eliminate the port-related diesel particulate pollution that hundreds of thousands of local residents breathe every day.  Organized labor is concerned about the health of the port truck drivers, many of whom are exploited legal immigrants who are in effect minimum wage workers with no right to health care or other job benefits that most of us take for granted.

This partnership between NRDC and the Teamsters is not without controversy. NRDC’s view – for which we took huge criticism from industry and the local press – is that the independent contractor model of port trucking is broken and needs to be discarded because drivers can’t afford to maintain their trucks or buy new ones and, ultimately, that’s bad for clean air and bad for the environment.

We advocated for a different model originally proposed by both the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach where real trucking companies would be held accountable for buying and maintaining trucks and employ the drivers, in the belief that, under this model, the trucks will be better maintained and more quickly replaced.  Organized labor wanted the same model because they will have the ability to organize the drivers -- drivers who want a better life in a sustainable economic model and who have as much interest as anyone else in putting an end to the environmental crisis that the ports have allowed to grow.

On March 20, 2008, the Port of Los Angeles adopted a port trucking plan that is based on the model that NRDC and organized labor wanted.  However, NRDC could not have achieved this result on its own.  Nor could labor.  Last week, thousands of people from the Teamsters, UNITE-HERE, Farmworkers, Change To Win, the Los Angeles Alliance For A New Economy, NRDC, the Sierra Club Harbor Vision Task Force, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and the Coalition for Clean Air rallied to show their support for the port of LA’s clean trucks plan and their desire to work together on future port expansion projects.  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Port-area Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn joined the list of speakers.

Some have argued that the true “unholy” alliance is actually the partnership between some shipping, trucking, and other port related interests, companies that have profited for decades on deadly diesel pollution and poised to derail clean up efforts by the ports.  The Port of Los Angeles has 16 major expansion projects in the pipeline to service what is expected to be a tripling of trade within the next 20 years.

There will most likely be more “unholy” alliances between environmental, community, and labor groups in our future, if that’s what it takes to keep the ports, shipping companies, trucking companies, and the railroads accountable to federal clean air standards and the health of port residents.