Historic Victory for Clean Air and Better Jobs in Southern California

November 18, 2008 -- Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy

On October 1, the nation’s first Clean Trucks Program was launched at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, culminating an epic battle to bring cleaner air and better jobs to the region’s largest industry.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose support was critical to the enactment of the policy, celebrated the new program at a press conference attended by port officials, community leaders, environmental and public health activists, and port truck drivers. Shortly after, two trucks were demolished - the first of thousands of diesel-spewing vehicles that will be removed from the road under the program.

The dramatic inauguration of one of the nation’s most far-reaching environmental cleanups follows a two-year effort by LAANE and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a broad-based alliance including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Teamsters and nearly 40 other organizations. The campaign has met with fierce opposition from the trucking industry as well as major shipping interests such as Wal-Mart that have long profited from a system that places the entire burden of buying and maintaining trucks on poor, largely immigrant drivers. "Now I don’t have to choose between replacing my truck and feeding my kids," said truck driver Raul Agamenon.

After failing to prevent enactment of the Clean Trucks Program, opponents took their case to the courts. But last month, a federal judge rejected requests for an injunction, allowing implementation of the program to begin. (The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the decision.)

Under the Clean Trucks Program, thousands of polluting trucks will be scrapped while conditions for some 16,000 port truck drivers will improve. Air quality authorities have linked 3,700 premature deaths each year in California to pollution from the transportation of goods -- more than the number of people who die annually from homicide.

In Los Angeles, the new program will shift the responsibility for ownership and upkeep of clean-burning vehicles to the trucking companies, while also requiring that drivers become employees of these companies rather than remain misclassified as independent contractors; a move that will significantly raise job standards and ensure basic workplace protections.

By contrast, the Long Beach program maintains the current failed system whereby drivers are held responsible for the purchase, maintenance and repair of the trucks. Indeed, many drivers will be forced into debt to replace their trucks with new vehicles that meet standards. Community members, environmentalists and expert economists agree that the Long Beach model is deeply flawed: any environmental gains will be short-lived, as the program lacks the sustainability of the Los Angeles model and does nothing to address the poor working conditions faced by short-haul truck drivers. The coalition is actively working to bring the Long Beach port up to the standard set by LA city leaders.

Beyond the benefits to drivers and the communities that have suffered from polluted air, the Clean Trucks Program is a watershed accomplishment for the burgeoning blue-green alliance. Often on opposite sides of public policy debates, labor advocates and environmentalists have created a powerful partnership that could serve as a model for a good jobs/green growth movement in cities across the nation.