Though I really do crave it, that new flat-screen TV would be a guilty pleasure. I mean I’ve got a working set, and the new one would doubtlessly be made in Asia, brought here on a ship, loaded onto an 18-wheel diesel truck, carried to a major retailer’s regional distribution warehouse, unloaded, put on another diesel truck, and driven to the local big box retailer. Just like almost every single other new consumer product that you and I buy.
To wrap our brains around the unfathomable amount of transport that it takes to bring us all this stuff and around what that’s doing to our health, let’s take a look at the middle leg of that journey – the one that takes our stuff from the ship to the distribution center. That trip, made over a hundred thousand times a day in our country, creates untold tons of diesel pollution, and it is making people sick, especially in low-income communities populated overwhelmingly by people of color. Read on for the details, but if you’d like to cut to the chase and urge your Senators and Congress member to protect us from diesel emissions on the middle leg of our stuff’s journey into our homes, please click here.
First, the health facts: Diesel exhaust is actually a mass of tiny, jagged-edged soot particles that embed themselves in our lungs. That soot causes and dangerously exacerbates asthma and increases the risk for respiratory disease. Oh, and in its spare time, it also causes cancer.
In short, diesel emissions are more than a foul smelling, roll-up-your-window nuisance as you pass a bus; the long-term exposure to diesel is a serious threat to people’s health. Keep that in the back of your mind as we return to our story.
It picks up in 1980 when the trucking industry was deregulated. That allowed the companies that lease and run the ports and those that sell us our stuff to cut organized labor out of the loop, hiring thousands of non-union truckers and paying them not as employees, but as independent contractors. Which enabled those same companies, i.e. the parties who reap the biggest profits from the freight transport system, to skirt responsibility for the system’s problems, like the one steadily spewing from the tailpipes of the trucks.
Which is to say: deregulation broke the freight transport system.
Are you tempted to go to the drivers and demand they do expensive retrofits and replacements? Before you do, take a look at the economic reality at the ports: each truck driver who works at a port is an independent owner-operator responsible for his/her truck, its maintenance, fuel, etc. As independent contractors who serve the ports and deliver to Wal-Mart and Target, they have no salary, no sick time, no vacation time, and no health benefits. (That last one is a particular problem because as drivers of diesel vehicles, they are exposed to the most intense diesel pollution there is.) After expenses, the truck drivers at the ports earn eight dollars an hour.
The ports’ truckers work in sweatshops on wheels. They’re in no position to pay the $20,000 that diesel retrofits and upgrades cost. And swapping an old, dirty rig for a new, clean one costs up to $150,000
So the problem isn’t just that the truckers aren’t paid enough to support their families; it’s also that our freight transport system allows its profiteers to avoid responsibility for the worker justice and public health impact of the port’s operations.
We can’t ignore this problem and hope someone else will fix things for the underpaid truckers who bring us our stuff. As long as we plan on breathing, the truckers’ problems are our problems. Good Jobs – Clean Air: they are one and the same.
The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a group that unites labor, environmental, and health advocates, has turned this organizing principal into results for working (and breathing) people. They started working in 2005 to push the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to implement a Clean Truck Plan. And in 2008, the Port of LA adopted the plan, which made each trucker a port employee who earns a living wage, works under improved conditions (opulent luxuries such as access to a bathroom), and enjoys health and other benefits. The plan paid for 6,600 new, clean trucks and reduced diesel emissions by 80%. Most importantly, this will transfer responsibility for truck ownership and maintenance from the drivers to bigger companies. (In return, those companies will get financial incentives and subsidies.)
Here’s why this matters to you: LA’s Clean Truck Plan is a model that other organizers around the country are following. But it’s in jeopardy.
In response to the adoption of the plan, the company that leases and runs the LA Ports sued to stop the plan’s implementation. And because the laws that govern these issues are outdated, the lawsuit may actually stop the Clean Truck Plan not only in LA, but in other ports around the country.
To protect the plan, the workers, the communities near the ports, and those of us who stubbornly insist on breathing are all organizing support for an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act – an old law that we can update to give the federal government common-sense authority over ports.
Click here to urge your Senators and Congress members to stand up for Good Jobs and Clean Air! Congress members are holding a hearing on this tomorrow. Please take a few seconds to send your representatives a strong message. Our online tool, makes it fast and easy.
(And maybe by the time we get around to buying our fancy, new flat-screen TVs, they’ll be a slightly less guilty pleasure.)