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‘If our trucks stop, America stops’: Oakland port at standstill over labor law protest

Chico Enterprise-Record logo Chico Enterprise-Record 7/20/2022 Eliyahu Kamisher

OAKLAND — The Port of Oakland – one of the country’s largest and a key hub for global commerce – has been brought to a standstill by a group of truck drivers angered over a state labor law that could upend their business model.

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The protest, which entered its second day on Tuesday, escalated to a near complete shutdown of the port as more than 100 protesters blocked terminal entrances halting the flow of goods. Many dock workers also refused to cross the truck drivers’ picket line, which forced the port to stop loading and offloading ships at the main terminal, a port authority spokesperson said.

“We want to show everyone that if our trucks stop, America stops,” said Harnoor Singh, who runs a company of four truck drivers. “We’re going to keep going until something positive comes out of” Sacramento.

Unlike union-backed strikes, the trucker protest is a loose coalition of independent contractors organized through social media without clear leadership. On Tuesday, the truckers said they may continue to halt cargo traffic throughout the week or possibly end the protest on Wednesday with the goal of moving the action to the state capital.

At the heart of the protest is the 2019 law AB 5, which will require about 70,000 currently independent owner-operators to register as employees of trucking and other companies. Many small business owners and independent truckers say the law could force them to shut down their operations. However, worker’s rights groups say the trucking industry is in desperate need of employee protections.

OAKLAND, CA – JULY 19: Truck driver Ramiro Jeronimo, left, plays soccer with fellow drivers at the entrance to container terminals at the Port of Oakland on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Oakland, Calif. Truck drivers have blocked access to the terminals in protest of AB 5, a bill that creates standards for classifying workers as independent contractors. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) © Provided by Chico Enterprise-Record OAKLAND, CA – JULY 19: Truck driver Ramiro Jeronimo, left, plays soccer with fellow drivers at the entrance to container terminals at the Port of Oakland on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Oakland, Calif. Truck drivers have blocked access to the terminals in protest of AB 5, a bill that creates standards for classifying workers as independent contractors. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

The law has been held up since 2020 amid legal wrangling. In June the Supreme Court declined to review a case opposing AB 5, paving the way for the state to enforce the new system of employee classifications.

AB 5 has been heavily backed by labor groups who say freelancers are often classified as independent contractors even though their work should qualify them for full-time employee benefits. Gig companies like Uber and Lyft pumped more than $200 million into a successful 2020 ballot measure to be exempt from the law, but that measure is tied up in court after a judge ruled the proposition was unconstitutional.

Doug Bloch, a political director for the Teamsters Union, criticized trucking associations for putting “all their eggs in the lawsuit basket” and not educating drivers on how AB 5 will impact their industry.

“This law is enforced against brokers and companies that hire people to drive trucks,” said Bloch. “If they’re hiring people and misclassifying them as independent contractors and cheating them out of workers comp and a minimum wage . . . well, they’re in trouble.”

But many truck drivers say the independent contractors’ model gives them flexibility and the ability to grow small trucking businesses in an industry that has become an economic engine for Sikh immigrants and their children.

“One truck here is supporting two families [in India],” said Singh.

The protest — coming after similar events at Southern California ports last week — also threatens to exacerbate supply chains, which are seeing a seasonal increase in cargo traffic and already teetering on the edge of major complications, said Larry Gross, a supply chain expert and president of Gross Transportation Consulting

“(Ports) are still paddling as hard as they can,” said Gross. “This is potentially quite disruptive.”

Gross said Oakland’s port protest could cause the facility to fill up with containers and force ships to seek ports in Southern California or the Gulf of Mexico.

At nearly 100 years old, the Port of Oakland is one of the top three gateways on the West Coast and it handles virtually all of Northern California’s containerized imports and exports. The port is an especially important hub for agricultural exports from California’s Central Valley to Asia.

While supply chain woes caused massive backlogs at shipping facilities during the last year, the import business has boomed amid strong consumer demand. In 2021, the Port of Oakland moved over 1 million import cargo containers, a new record.

On Tuesday, the Oakland port was quiet as protesters stood at all the terminal gates The typically bustling facility saw only a trickle of vehicle traffic as some truckers passed the time by playing soccer and munching pizza.

“The independent truckers’ concerns have been heard,” said Marilyn Sandifur, a port spokesperson, “They need to take their message to Sacramento. Ongoing protests will drive customers away from the Port of Oakland.”

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