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Delegation crashes port event in Seattle to call for trucking changes

Religious leaders, truckers, and activists are urging the Port of Seattle to take much more significant steps to help truckers, reduce pollution, and protect health in the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods.

Trucks operate at a Port of Seattle facility. Residents would like more steps to ensure diesel-engine pollution is minimized.

Trucks operate at a Port of Seattle facility. Residents would like more steps to ensure diesel-engine pollution is minimized. KCTS

Singing the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” activists and religious leaders and truck drivers tried Wednesday to breach security at a downtown conference of seaport authorities to appeal to the Port of Seattle to improve working conditions and pay for drivers.

In the same hotel where hundreds of delegates to the World Trade Organization took refuge from tear gas in 1999, the activists sought to highlight their call for drivers to be hired as employees instead of scraping by as independent contractors. The drivers say they are on some days working for less than minimum wage, waiting for up to six hours to get a load that might pay them $40 or $50. Because they are independent contractors, the drivers also are responsible for sometimes-expensive maintenance and repairs.

Several waves of protesters, about 30 in all, were turned back in front of a phalanx of Port of Seattle police officers on the fourth floor of the Westin. “If you are not credentialed, you need to head right down that escalator!” Westin General Manager Elizabeth James instructed the last wave, which broke into song as the protesters moved slowly toward the exit.

The protesters are planning a larger demonstration outside the Westin at noon Thursday (Sept. 15).

Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and a board member of the activist group Puget Sound Sage, said he was trying Wednesday to deliver a letter from several local and national religious leaders calling for better treatment of the drivers. Several workers also bore their own letter, hoping to deliver it to Port of Seattle executives at the conference.

“We back the workers and their demands that they be respected and be recognized as full employees, including the wages and working conditions that should be due to them,” Ramos said in an interview.

The protest, part of a national campaign, marked the latest in a long-simmering dispute over whether Seattle’s short-haul truckers, mostly immigrants from East Africa, are in fact employees of the companies whose brands they carry on their trucks, and for whom the drivers work exclusively. If the drivers were reclassified as employees, they could be unionized by the Teamsters — a prospect that worries shipping and trucking companies working around the Port of Seattle.

But activist groups like the labor-backed Change to Win argue that making the workers employees is the fair thing to do. The community would benefit, too, they argue, because if the trucking companies owned the trucks, they could be required to update the fleet to less-polluting models produced in recent years. So long as dirt-poor independent drivers are responsible, they will continue to driver older and more-polluting rigs, the activists argue.

The meeting the protesters tried to get into was a session at the annual conference of the American Association of Port Authorities on “Greening of the Cargo Supply Chain.” Earlier in the week the activists slipped under the doors of Westin Hotel rooms copies of a spoofed and sarcastic agenda for the AAPA meeting, with session titles such as “The Green Washing of the Cargo Supply Chain Award.”

“We’ve got a few people outside today demonstrating,SSA Marine Vice President Mark Knudsen told the conference audience. “Their motivation may not be the same as ours in cleaning up the environment.” Industry officials have suggested that the activists are more interested in unionizing the drivers than they are in clean air — charges the activists deny.

The dispute highlights a fracture in the labor movement. Change to Win is backed by the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Farm Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers — all of which count higher proportions of their membership from women and people of color than many more-conservative unions. The trucks that the Seattle drivers in question are piloting are loaded by members of the International Longshormen’s Association, which hews to a more moderate political tack.

Port officials argue that they have taken significant steps to reduce air pollution from the trucks, such as offering truckers willing to quit driving old, dirty trucks $5,000 or the Blue Book value of the vehicle. And the port has held “resource fairs” for truckers where they learned about the buyback program and got advice on how to handle insurance and get loans, said port spokesman Peter McGraw. Port staffers have also briefed the port commission twice this year and held three community briefings, McGraw said. In addition, the port has designated a staffer to be its liaison with drivers, and set up a telephone help line and an email address for drivers to contact, he said.

“We’ve been working with them for several years and we’ll continue to work with them and listen to them,” McGraw said.

He acknowledged that some drivers are not well-paid. “There’s going to be variances in terms of what truckers receive” as pay, McGraw said. “We know that and we want to help the ones who need it most.”

Inside the conference, several speakers gave plaudits to the Port of Seattle for working to reduce air pollution through steps that the activists say fall far short of what’s needed. One person inside the conference who called for more environmentalists to be allowed in was Carleen Lyden-Kluss, director of the industry-backed North American Marine Environment Protection Association.

“We need a new approach,” she told the conference. “Don’t be afraid of us.”

As reported in an earlier collaboration among Crosscut, KCTS Channel 9 and InvestigateWest, air pollution levels in south Seattle neighborhoods near the port exceed regulatory caution levels by up to 30 times, according to one government study. A second recent study showed that Puget Sound is in the top 5 percent of communities nationally for air toxics. The industrial neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park have some of the dirtiest air in the Puget Sound region, and that is where rates of kids being hospitalized for asthma are the highest in King County.

The journalists’ investigation also showed that Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani spearheaded a move to convince the AAPA not to back federal legislation that would give ports much greater control over trucking companies. Yoshitani had earlier vowed to make Seattle the “cleanest, greenest and most energy-efficient” port in the country.

Drivers who joined the protest on Wednesday said their working conditions are atrocious. Once on port property, they can’t leave their truck, even if they have to go to the bathroom, truckers said, and they are not permitted to speak to the Longshoremen loading their trucks, even if they have to wait many hours. Most drivers did not want their names used in this article because they fear being fired for speaking out.

“Our hope had been that the workers would deliver their own message in a letter they had produced,” Ramos said. “It’s a particularly courageous act on their part, because they’re risking their jobs.”

Mike Merritt, the Port of Seattle’s local government affairs manager, met with the demonstrators after they were shown the door at the Westin. He referred a reporter's questions to McGraw, the port spokesman, who said Merritt would deliver the letters to Yoshitani and to the port’s elected commissioners.

The religious leaders who appealed to the port include representatives of the United Church of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Episcopal Church. Also signing the letter were officials from the American Friends Service Committee, New York City-based Green Faith, Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and Oakland, Calif.-based East Bay Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

In addition to calling for reclassification of the drivers as employees, the religious leaders called on the port to modernize the truck fleet so it pollutes less; “fully respect the health of these communities;” and “create a genuine good-faith partnership with Georgetown and South Park residents, beginning with the creation, at Port of Seattle expense, of truck parking facilities, thus removing both truck congestion and the usurpation of parking space on residential streets.”

InvestigateWest is a non-profit newsroom based in Seattle that produces in-depth journalism. Please consider a donation to support this kind of work.

Robert McClure is executive director and chief environmental correspondent for InvestigateWest. A board member at the Society of Environmental Journalists, McClure has won a number of awards, including the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. He can be reached at rmcclure@invw.org.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 15, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I work for the Port of Seattle and would like to share additional information that the reporter chose not to include in this article. As we shared with the reporter, since 2007, there have been over 120 meetings with truckers and members of the community about the port's clean truck program. As also noted to the reporter yesterday, in addition to the meetings he mentions in 2011, the port has been working with the African Chamber of Commerce to ensure drivers within the African immigrant community are provided accurate information and made aware of assistance available to them.

Also, it is misleading to state that the Scrappage and Retrofits for Air in Puget Sound (ScRAPS) program was merely "offering drivers willing to quit driving old, dirty trucks" money; rather, the program, administered by Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and Cascade Sierra Solutions, worked with drivers who owned trucks that would no longer be allowed to call at port terminals once our truck program went into effect on January 1st of this year. Drivers were able to turn in their older truck for $5,000 or Blue Book value - whichever was greater - toward the purchase of a newer model, and Cascade Sierra worked very closely with drivers to help them find affordable financing for newer trucks. A few drivers chose not to continue in the industry and used the funds toward finding a new career.

There is disagreement about what clean truck programs should include, as evidenced by the actions the reporter covered, and we welcome a dialogue about the merits of various models provided they include accurate information about what has been achieved thus far. The port's clean truck program, and overall clean air strategy, has seen real success in reducing emissions in and around our harbor, and that success has come at least in part because of the collaborative, community-based approach behind it. Though we will be posting an update for the third quarter of 2011 soon, you can find information about seaport air quality programs and emissions reductions to date at http://www.portseattle.org/downloads/community/environment/Seaport_Air_Quality_Program_Overview_201106.pdf.

Thanks,

Charla Skaggs
Port of Seattle

cskaggs

Posted Thu, Sep 15, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Charla, your PR letter would be more believable if it had a link that works and if you actually answered these questions. Data, please.

What are the actual pollution reductions achieved that are attributable to these programs by the Port?

What proportion of truckers have upgraded their rigs to newer less polluting trucks under the Port's program?

Why haven't more truckers done so? Is it because:
*They don't know about it?
*They don't want to?
*The Port's program does not provide sufficient support to allow them to?

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Sep 16, 1:09 a.m. Inappropriate

I was a heavy truck tower in Seattle for over 38 years,I have seen more then my share of tractors, refer units and straight trucks that leaked well over the aloughted amounts of oil pollutants on to the dirt,cement, and asphalt,if the local truckers that are not legal,they choose go south from Federal Way,they either go around where there is the southbound take Hwy,99 or the Valley Frwy.If they are northbound they will take the the last Fife exit going north or will take the valley frwy,now not all truckers that take the Valley frwy. are illegals.I have had these truckers pay me to drop them away from these check points.I had one truck pay me three times in one afternoon,and is all I could do was smile do to his onw ingnorance.I would say that,the only trucks that I towed and were not illegal were unionised drivers and owner operators,that had a lot of money invested in there equipment.When reading this article,the only thing I am seeing is the air pollution acts,not the qround water contamtions the oil leakers cause.This is just a small amount that I feel like writting about,on how the heavy trucks pollute the "AIR", horse pucky.boarderjumper

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