It was the public’s last chance to object to the California Air Resources Board’s theoretically aggressive proposal to clean up the asthma-and-cancer-causing air at the state’s ports. San Pedro residents stood up to remind the board of coughing fits and days lost from work; environmentalists scolded the board for settling for a proposal that lacks mandatory regulations and sets less-than-ambitious goals. “Can you imagine the response if someone said there’ll be 2,400 deaths this year from the avian flu,” said Andrea Hricko of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, “and the state said, ‘Well, we plan to reduce it to 880 by 2020?’?”

Stephanie Williams, however, had one overarching, sound question: “How can you have a plan without truckers at the table?”

As the vice president of the California Trucking Association, Williams attends meetings on behalf of the trucking industry, in which she includes everybody from fleet managers with six-digit salaries to port truckers scraping together $25,000 a year. An energetic blond with a chipper demeanor, she has long been the go-to gal for truckers on several local radio shows and in the Associated Press. She has argued on behalf of underpaid truckers who can’t possibly pay for new trucks or retrofits to meet better emissions standards. But at the ARB meeting, she took the podium to say that she didn’t want state bond money or port fees to pay for them either: “Trucks are not a utility,” she said. “Trucks are not a public service. If you subsidize us, we’ll be on welfare.”

Diesel exhaust from trucks accounts for most of the on-shore particulate pollution as well as most of the ozone-forming nitrogen oxides — a nontrivial chunk of the pollution in what local residents call “the diesel death zone.” The ARB plans to reduce those emissions by 60 percent to 90 percent in the next 15 years, but it won’t be easy: According to the agency’s own count, only around a third of big rigs are new enough to be outfitted with modern diesel particulate filters; engines before 1994 can neither be retrofitted nor upgraded. Plans have been put forth to fix the problem, but almost all involve some sort of guaranteed loan or incentive program to put truckers in better equipment. Williams wasn’t having it.

“If you give a driver a new truck, he won’t be able to pay the insurance,” she told me. “Truckers just need to make more.” Williams has proposed raising the fee the shipping line pays the trucking company for each container. Thirty percent of that fee, she said, goes to the trucking company, the other 70 percent to the driver.

But long-haul line driver Armando Gonzalez of Rancho Cucamonga says truckers get paid by the trip or the mile, not by any percentage, and it’s the trucking companies that need to raise truckers’ wages. Gonzalez is forming an association of independent truckers that would include line drivers and short-haul port truckers to demand better working conditions and a bigger share of the profits. “The trucking companies are the only ones making the big bucks,” he says. Truckers can only get loads at the port by assignment from trucking companies, but they still shoulder the responsibility for all fuel, fees and maintenance.

Gonzalez wasn’t at the meeting in Long Beach — he was out driving his truck — but if he had been he would have disputed Williams’ authority. “Anybody would be delighted to get into a better truck,” he told me over the phone. “The insurance for cargo and liability is based on your driving record. Tell her next time you talk to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” And while Williams’ association counts 250 owner-operators among its 2,300 members (“We call ‘em ‘microfleets,’” she says) Gonzalez insists that “as far as we’re concerned [the California Trucking Association] is the enemy. They don’t even return our phone calls.”

Gonzalez says he supports stricter emissions standards, “but what are you going to do if you’re driving a ’93 with no computerized system to adjust?” If the shipping and trucking industries could subsidize equipment upgrades, he says, “that would be workable.”

One day in March, I went down to the ports with Miguel Lopez, the L.A. port’s representative for the Teamsters, to talk to truckers. As a union representative, Lopez can’t organize most port truckers, but he’d like to see an end to deregulation, and it’s possible that motivating truck drivers to join forces might one day accomplish that.

As we waited for drivers to break for coffee at lunch trucks, he pointed out what he considered the consequences of deregulation, which include not just pollution but drivers working long hours thanks to the off-peak-hours program, and dangerously overweight containers. “See it lean?” he said, gesturing at a 20-foot container loaded on a 40-foot chassis. “Those are usually the overweight ones — the shipping companies only want to pay for a 20-footer but they’ve got too much cargo. That container can flip over on you on the freeway.

“I’m trying to make the public aware of a situation that puts us all in harm’s way,” he told me. “And then, once we do that, how do we leverage that to get something in place to stabilize this work force? Industry has to change the way it does business.”

At a lunch truck near the Long Beach port, I talked to a driver who identified himself only as Ramon. His truck was built in 1989. Black smoke huffed from its exhaust pipe, and most of its tires had little tread left. Some were bald. “I guess I should get new ones, eh?” he said with a smile and a shrug. “But they cost $300 apiece. I don’t have the money yet.”

Another driver told me his state fees had risen threefold in the last year, for reasons he didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fight.

“The trucking companies we work for don’t see us like human beings,” said Armestides Gomez, a driver who had been stretching his legs, lifting them one at a time up on his tires. “We don’t get enough money. We don’t get worker’s compensation. We don’t get disability, and we’re not united.”

“Big fat first quarter,” read the headline of an April 20 story in Fleet Owner magazine, a trade publication catering to executives and managers of commercial trucking fleets. “Truckload giant Werner Enterprises saw its profit increase 11 percent; Heartland Express said its net income increased 30.8 percent; Knight Transportation Inc. announced its net income increased 24.1 percent.”

At the end of the day, the state air board adopted its emissions reduction plan. Toothless as it is — the word “mandatory” comes up only twice in close to 200 pages — it does encourage subsidies for those truckers “who lack the resources” to retire their old trucks. It estimates the cost at $1 billion. Armando Gonzalez says fewer drivers would fall into that category if they could deal directly with the shipping lines. “What has to take place is that we independents obtain our own contracts from the shippers direct instead of going through the broker who isn’t passing it on,” he says.

On April 30 two years ago, Gonzalez was among the truckers who jackknifed his big rig on the 5 freeway, blocking traffic to protest rising fuel costs and declining fees. In the wake of that action, he says he saw fuel prices drop and many truckers negotiate raises. But despite reports to the contrary, he has called for truckers to support the immigrant workers’ strike on May 1 only by marching in support of immigrant rights. “Later on, when things get more settled with the immigration issue,” he says, “we’re going to carry a big strike against oil companies.” I wondered if he was worried about getting fired for his activism.

“You mean about not getting loads? No. Sometimes they say, ‘If you go out we’ll fire you.’ They’ll threaten to fire you if you miss a day. But there’s already a shortage of truckers, so they need us to work. If they fire us, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.