By Liz Borkowski 

In the latest issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Joseph Plaster explores how the system for trucking imported goods from the Port of Oakland keeps both truckers and residents struggling. Truckers scrape by on meager earnings and can only afford the oldest, most polluting vehicles; pollution from hundreds of dirty trucks idling for hours each day spells health problems for truckers and those living nearby.

A coalition of labor, environmental, and community groups has proposed changes that would improve truckers’ situation and clear the air. The companies who contract out the driving jobs and the retailers whose products travel through the port would have to shoulder more of the costs, though, and will probably oppose the changes.

One driver quoted in the article, 39-year-old Dawit Fre, gets paid $42 for each load that he takes from the port terminal to its destination. He’ll get four loads on good days, one load on bad days. He usually waits in line for at least two hours before picking up a container. His truck lacks air conditioning, so he leaves the windows down and breathes in diesel fumes; now, he has a persistent cough. A NIOSH study published in 1998 found that trucking industry workers had a lifetime excess lung cancer risk ten times higher than the 1 per 1,000 excess risk allowed by OSHA in setting regulations.

Fre has to buy his own gas – it’s $250 to fill up the tank – plus $178 in registration each month and 12% of his weekly earning for insurance. He gets no overtime pay or benefits. Plaster writes:

[Fre’s] experience is typical of those of port truckers across the country. A study by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, found that the average Port of Oakland trucker makes as little as $8 an hour after expenses, works 11 hours a day, and spends two and a half hours in line per load. Almost none of the truckers reported receiving benefits on the job, and 66 percent don’t have health insurance.

This is consistent with data from a 2004 survey of port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, conducted by a professor of economics at California State University Long Beach. That report found they had a median income of $25,000 a year after expenses and an average workday of 11.2 hours, with up to 33 percent of their time spent waiting in line.

Fre’s 1987 truck needs $5,000 in repairs, but he can’t afford them right now. Old, polluting trucks are also the norm at the Port of Oakland, and that affects the surrounding community:

West Oakland has long been a dumping ground for the Bay Area’s toxic waste. The community has one of the five highest asthma hospitalization rates in California, with an estimated 20 percent of its K–12 students suffering from the disorder, according to the ALA. Researchers at the University of Southern California have found that children living within a few hundred meters of freeways leading out of ports not only are more likely to suffer from asthma but also actually develop smaller lungs.


The [West Oakland Environmental Indicators Projct] has released more than half a dozen studies related to air quality. A 2003 report showed that trucks traveling through West Oakland in one day produce the same amount of toxic soot as 127,677 cars, leading to indoor air in some neighborhood homes that is five times more toxic than that in other parts of the city.
Still, [community health activist Margaret] Gordon told us that port officials are “only starting paying attention.” Last year the California Air Resources Board passed a resolution related to air quality at ports and announced that it was developing a regulatory mechanism. A 2006 CARB report found that truck diesel exhaust accounts for the majority of the estimated 2,400 deaths related to freight transport each year and 70 percent of the state’s air pollution–related cancer risk. Freight transport will cost California residents $200 billion in health costs over the next 15 years. Most of this is borne by low-income communities of color near freight transport hubs. 

 Prior to the 1980 deregulation of trucking, Plaster reports, most truckers at California ports were Teamsters with health care, pensions, workers’ comp insurance, and middle-class wages. Following deregulation, independent contractors entered the market and began to offer lower bids for the jobs. This meant lower prices for the companies whose goods were being shipped, but it effectively shifted more of the costs to the individual drivers and the community. A coalition of local groups has put forth a proposal to shift some of those costs back:

The Port of Oakland has no direct relationship with its truckers at the present. Shippers take price bids from among roughly 100 trucking companies at the port, then contract the work to the independent-contractor truckers. The CCSP says bidding wars lead to poverty wages for truckers, older trucks and more pollution, and a chaotic port full of inefficiencies like long pickup waits.

Under the proposed system, ports would call on their ability as landlords to set standards for the trucking and shipping companies. They would require trucking companies to hire drivers as employees, shifting maintenance costs from the drivers to the companies, which would retrofit or replace all port trucks with more environmentally friendly rigs. The ports would allow only new, cleaner trucks to enter. The companies could then, in theory, pass the costs on to shippers and end users.

If drivers were paid as employees by the hour instead of by the trip, the coalition expects the market would reduce inefficient truck wait times and air pollution.

“When you rent an apartment you sign a lease,” [Oakland coalition coordinator Doug] Bloch told us. “If you trash the place, you get evicted. Corporations are trashing this community, but they’re not being evicted.”


Bloch says the coalition’s target is the shipping companies, not the trucking companies. “The shippers are hiding behind the trucking companies,” he told us. “On the one side there are the giant shipping companies, like Wal-Mart and Target, huge global companies that demand low prices from trucking companies. On the other side are tiny trucking companies, immigrant truckers, and communities of color. Wal-Mart’s slogan is ‘always low prices,’ but ‘always low prices’ means one out of five children in West Oakland with asthma and drivers making $8 an hour who can’t support their families.”


Trucking expert Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, has shown that long-haul truckers now earn less than half of prederegulation wages and work an average of more than 60 hours a week, while retailers like Wal-Mart have thrived. “The low rates paid to truckers in this global-trade game acts as a subsidy for increasing the amount of trade,” Belzer told us. “Pollution and safety hazards are the negative externalities.” If all ports on the West Coast required employee drivers, he said, “the market result would be that cost and safety would go up, and pollution would go down.”

Oakland’s mayor and port authorities seem willing to seriously consider the reform; the American Trucking Association, whose members contract directly with Wal-Mart and other retailers, has threatened to sue if it goes through. The outcome may depend in part on how things go at the ports of Los Angeles and long beach, where a program to slash diesel emissions faces a vote in September.

The full article is well worth a read. Anyone who buys goods shipped through ports should be paying attention to the real costs of what we’re purchasing.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.