MIGUEL LOPEZ WAS RUNNING LATE. The Teamsters representative to the ports had been planning to address public officials, environmentalists and others gathered in downtown L.A. to discuss, among other things, ways to reduce air pollution created by “goods movement” — the transporting of imported products from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the rest of the country. But first, Lopez had another pressing engagement: The Teamsters, along with the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and other port workers, were staging a morning protest of the Bush administration’s planned contract with a company from the United Arab Emirates to provide services at six U.S. ports. “Our federal government has just undermined us once again,” Lopez said of the Dubai Ports World contracts. “It’s a backdoor deal with the oil barons who support the Bush family.”

Lopez, when pressed on the issue, would have insisted it’s all about port security, as does the ILWU in its official statements and press releases. But a line in the Teamsters’ flier suggests something else is at work: Dubai Ports World, says the union, once trained scabs to break the Australian National Dockworkers Union. I couldn’t verify that claim, and the complaint seems somewhat disingenuous, as the ports in question are now operated by Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation, a British company that spent part of the 19th century moving that “good” known as opium. But that didn’t diminish the point Lopez had come to make: Ever since the late Carter-era deregulation of the trucking industry put worker health and safety behind economic progress, ordinary, usually independent, short-haul truckers — overworked, underpaid and probably immigrants without health insurance — have been getting squeezed from all sides by an economy in which they’re considered expendable.

“I was a trucker for 35 years, and I was accustomed to benefits before deregulation hit,” Lopez told the audience. Now, he said, “the government fails them, the industry fails them and even the public fails them.” Because they can’t afford to maintain their vehicles, “they’ll run their equipment any way they can. If a mud flap falls off, they’ll replace it with cardboard. They’re going to put their trucks back together with gum if they have to.” Their salaries are so low — most independent truckers earn around $25,000 a year after buying increasingly expensive diesel fuel and paying all federal and state fees — that many of them work two shifts. Now that the ports stay open all night to relieve daytime congestion, 16-hour days are not uncommon.

“Put one lane between yourself and that container truck you see on the freeway,” Lopez warned. “That driver just might be fatigued.”

HYPERBOLE, MAYBE — the Teamsters has every reason to dramatize the truckers’ plight, as the rise of the unaffiliated (and undefended) independent contractor has cut significantly into unionized labor’s ranks and power. But Lopez, a man in his 50s who looked conspicuously non-entrepreneurial — he wore a neat white shirt and jeans — was easily the most compelling speaker in the public-comments portion of the Friday meeting of the Goods Movement work group at the CalTrans building downtown. (When the webcast of the day’s proceedings crashed in the middle of his speech, one of the technicians rushed to apologize for the mishap “right at the most exciting part of the day,” and promised Lopez it was not a conspiracy to silence him.) And one thing must have been clear to anyone listening to Lopez: There will be no safe tripling of goods movement in California, no entirely successful “community-impact mitigation” and no complete plan to reduce air pollution at the ports without serious attention to the trucks that spew 47 tons of ozone-forming nitrogen daily at the ports alone. “If you don’t invest in these workers, it’s money down the drain,” Lopez argued.

Behind the scenes, some environmentalists have been suspicious that the trucking industry is using claims about trucker poverty to get out of paying tolls. But Lopez counters that no one suffers more from toxic air than the trucker, who breathes carcinogenic soot every hour on the job; Lopez says he personally remembers coughing up and showering off soot after a day’s work, and several studies throughout the 1990s clearly established a connection between truck driving and lung cancer. What truckers need, says Lopez, is help getting their aging rigs off the road, and retrofitting later models with clean-air technology.

At the moment, only scattered incentive funds exist for the retrofitting of old trucks and the purchasing of new ones. The state’s Carl Moyer Program offers money for the purchase of clean-air vehicles, and incentives also trickle in from various clean-diesel programs run by the federal government and some cities, including Los Angeles’ Gateway Cities Clean Air Program, which offers cash for upgrades but requires the trucker to pony up $7,000 to $10,000 from an already slender income. Wally Baker of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation contends that a faster and more comprehensive solution would be to simply outlaw all pre-1994 or “Stage I” diesel engines, “the ones that blow the black smoke,” within three or four years, and to both mandate and subsidize upgrades to Stage II. At roughly $5,000 a truck, that’s cheaper than buying truckers brand-new $120,000 rigs they can’t even afford to insure; it’s also more effective than offering funds for voluntary retrofits, after which a trucker could turn around and sell the new vehicle while continuing to drive the old one. ”The way I see it,” Baker told me in the hall outside the meeting, “about 25 percent of the trucks out there registered in California are Stage I diesel, and each one puts out 10 parts of particulate matter for every one part Stage II puts out. Just by banning those older engines, you’ve cut pollution by 90 percent.” When ultralow-sulfur diesel-fuel standards kick in on June 1 and Stage III clean diesel comes onto the market in 2007, “even that one little last part of particulate goes away.”

Funds for both newer and cleaner trucks have been embedded in any one of the three infrastructure bond measures wending their way through the politics of Sacramento, one by Democratic state Senator Don Perata of Oakland, another by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, and still another contained in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Strategic Growth Plan. The governor himself has pledged to “clean up the fleet of California’s big rigs by fixing and replacing diesel engines,” and Perata’s $13 billion initiative allocates $2.5 billion for the ports. “That includes retrofitting or replacing trucks,” says Perata spokesperson Alicia Dlugosh.

But Baker still worries that “Sacramento pride and politics” won’t be placated in time to get any of the bonds on the June ballot before the March 10 deadline. Dlugosh says that negotiations are chugging along, but admits that disagreements over things like housing and public transportation (Perata wants it; the governor not so much) have slowed things down. “It might have to wait until the November ballot,” she says. “But we’ll get it through.”

Baker, however, insists we don’t have time to lose. “This is a no-stinking-brainer,” he says. “These people are very important to the movement of goods, and whatever we can do to get them in better equipment is good for everyone and everything — business, real estate, tourism, everything. The benefits far outweigh the cost.”

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