Heavy-duty problems

Hundreds of local truckers threaten quasi-strike, saying job security and clean air aren't mutually exclusive

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AP PHOTO by D. ROSS CAMERON

rebecca@sfbg.com

As a kid, Turcilo Caldera would climb into his father's big rig and accompany him on runs to the Port of Oakland. "He would sit me on his lap and show me how to drive," he remembered.

Originally from Nicaragua, Caldera came to California at age 5 and grew up in San Francisco's Excelsior District. Now 30, he too is a trucker.

Speaking by phone around 8:30pm on a recent Friday, on his way to Stockton to drop off a shipment, he recounted how he'd arrived at the port at 5am and waited in line until 8:30am, only to move to a different line to pick up a load. "I ended up leaving the terminal around 10," he said. That's when he started getting paid.

Companies pay by the load, regardless of the time it takes to wait in line. Caldera works 12 to 13 hours a day.

He recently became a member of the Port of Oakland Truckers Association. It's not a union, since truckers are classified as owner-operators rather than employees of the companies that hire them. Nevertheless POTA, which represents several hundred owner-operators, reflects the truckers' attempt to ban together for better working conditions.

Truckers never know what they're hauling, but it's safe to assume that major retailers — Walmart, IKEA — are expecting shipments in advance of a holiday shopping blitz. While some companies anticipate a bump in profits, POTA and hundreds of other port truckers are facing potential job loss come New Year's Day.

At a Nov. 22 meeting, POTA membership voted unanimously to begin a work stoppage at the port, starting Wednesday (11/27). "We don't want to stop working, we need to make a living," said Roberto Ruiz, a POTA member. "But this is the only thing they respond to."

On Jan. 1, 2014, when new clean air regulations go into effect, hundreds of independent truck drivers will lose work as their vehicles fall out of compliance. They can't afford to pay out of pocket for trucks that are compliant with new emission control regulations. Many face a tough time getting loans, and those who have dodged the bullet by securing a loan now find themselves in a worse financial crunch than before.

Many could be forced out of jobs completely. By the Port's estimates, around 80 percent of the roughly 6,000 registered to service the Port are set to be in compliance. POTA estimates 800 truckers could be impacted.

POTA's vote to stop work followed a series of meetings with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Deputy Mayor Sandré Swanson, as well as representatives from the Port and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to try and hash out a solution.

In meetings, POTA asked city officials and CARB to identify funding to help those in danger of job loss retrofit their vehicles to comply with the clean-air regulations. They also proposed some solutions: They want fees billed to shipping customers for the time truckers must spend waiting in line for the loads they haul, to help offset the cost of buying and maintaining compliant trucks.

The Jan. 1 ban on older trucks is part of a broader effort to alleviate air pollution in surrounding West Oakland, where cancer and asthma rates are abnormally high. The Port's system of loading cargo shipments results in long lines idling for hours, leading to a chronic congestion problem that has fouled the air. Before the problem was addressed, "Ports were where old trucks went to die," explained Isaac Kos-Read, a Port of Oakland spokesperson. "Old trucks were the worst polluters on the road."

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