Diverse Groups Stay United for Green Campaigns

By Toni Vranjes

June 14, 2012

To some, it’s an unlikely pairing: environmental groups and labor unions.

In recent years, however, they’ve united for some high-profile campaigns in Southern California. They’ve been fighting for green shipping ports and for increased recycling – and the battles have been intense.

Concerns about the environment and workers’ rights spurred them to action. They were alarmed by long lines of dirty trucks, spewing toxic fumes in port communities. They worried about landfills overflowing with plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other recyclable items. And they heard from many workers in these industries, who told them that conditions are unjust and hazardous.

The alliances include not only environmentalists and labor, but also a variety of other groups. Over the years, the coalitions have encountered a lot of opposition. Along the way, they’ve endured some setbacks, but they’ve also experienced many victories.

Some of their keys to success:

  • including a wide range of groups in their coalitions
  • creating a well-defined message
  • diligently taking that message to decision-makers
  • resisting any attempts to divide them

During a conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, leaders of these two movements discussed their ongoing work. They spoke during a workshop at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, which was presented by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation.

The coalitions include the Sierra Club, the Teamsters union, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE).

The alliance members are determined to continue their efforts in California and to take their campaigns across the entire nation. They’re hoping that their persistence and determination will pay off — with benefits for workers, the economy, and the planet.

Clean-Trucks Campaign

At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a broad coalition has been battling air pollution and promoting workers’ rights.

It’s a diverse partnership. In addition to prominent labor and environmental groups, other members include environmental-justice groups East Yard Communities and the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma.

The alliance helped create the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program, which is credited with dramatically reducing pollution. But getting to that point has been a long journey.

Many of the concerns related to the short-haul trucks that transport goods to and from the ports, according to one of the speakers, Tom Politeo. He serves as chair of the Sierra Club’s Harbor Vision Task Force, formed in 2001 to improve conditions at the ports.

One major worry has been air pollution. The dirty diesel trucks generated harmful emissions at the ports and in nearby communities. For instance, when the trucks drove by schools located next to freeways, children were exposed to hazardous fumes.

Another concern has been exploitation of truck drivers, Politeo said. Many trucking companies classify drivers as independent contractors, and so they receive a flat rate for their services. Whether the trip is quick, or the drivers are stuck in traffic for hours, they receive the same rate, he said.

Under federal law, unions can’t organize independent contractors, because that would be an antitrust violation. The activists contend that the truck drivers are misclassified, and that they should be paid by the clock as employees.

“That’s the legal framework that the trucking companies have used for many years, to be able to exploit these people and pay them what in most cases is not even a living wage for hauling the boxes,” said speaker David Pettit, a senior attorney at the NRDC.

Pettit noted that “they get so many dollars per box, and it doesn’t matter how long a particular trip takes.”

Labeling drivers as “independent contractors” not only leads to exploitation, it also may cause air quality to suffer, the coalition maintains. Many of the relatively low-paid drivers can’t afford to maintain their trucks, and the lack of maintenance could cause air pollution to increase again, they say.

In response to criticism, the trucking industry maintains that “independent contractor” status is legitimate and beneficial. The American Trucking Associations says that the availability of independent contractors provides businesses with flexibility to meet fluctuations in demand for services. It also asserts that independent contractors have many opportunities to become entrepreneurs and start their own trucking businesses.

However, labor and environmental groups insist that employee status and union organization are needed to protect workers. In pursuit of these goals, activists have held many demonstrations and rallies.

The alliance also pushed for legislation to address their concerns. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa worked closely with Carl Pope, the former head of the Sierra Club, and James P. Hoffa, Teamsters General President.

“The fact that he worked very closely with both of these men put us in a position to be able to move this kind of policy in Los Angeles,” Politeo said.

The collaboration paid off. In 2008, the city enacted the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program, which called for gradually replacing dirty diesel trucks with cleaner vehicles.

It also included a concession program, which required trucking companies to sign agreements in order to do business at the port. The concession agreements require the companies to meet stringent emissions, safety and maintenance standards. The concession program also included a requirement for trucking companies to hire drivers as employees.

While environmentalists and labor were elated, the trucking industry was outraged. The American Trucking Associations claimed that certain parts of the Los Angeles concession program were illegal, and the group sued the city.

The NRDC intervened try to save the clean-trucks program. The case went to trial in federal court, and the city of Los Angeles won there.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of the program, including a requirement that trucking companies pay for maintenance of trucks.

However, it struck down the clause that would have required companies to hire truck drivers as employees. This provision would have made it easier to ensure that trucking companies pay the costs of truck maintenance.

Without this provision, the port needs to step up its inspection efforts and make sure that trucking companies – not drivers — are paying to maintain the trucks, Pettit wrote last year in a blog post.

Although the American Trucking Associations won a major victory when the employee provision was struck down, the group objects to several provisions that were upheld, and it has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn them.

The provisions being challenged include the maintenance requirements, as well as a mandate that trucking companies show they’re financially capable of complying with the franchise agreements.

Last month, the Supreme Court sought the Solicitor General’s opinion on the case.

While the outcome of the legal dispute is still uncertain, it’s clear that there’s been a lot of progress at the port of Los Angeles.

Today, all trucks doing business at the port must meet the toughest environmental standards in the nation. City leaders say the clean-truck program has reduced truck emissions by 80 percent. The coalition’s efforts also led to a community benefits foundation, which is distributing $50 million for long-term mitigation of harm caused by the port.

“We have accomplished everything we set out to do, except for the one piece, in terms of having the truck drivers be hired as employees,” Politeo said.

Now, the coalition is trying to ensure that the remaining parts of the clean-truck program are enforced. One major issue is ensuring that the trucking industry pays to maintain the trucks, according to Pettit.

“All of the trucks are cleaner now,” Pettit said. “They’re much cleaner than they were.”

“But if you buy a car, you don’t change the oil, you don’t do any maintenance, pretty soon you have a newish car that’s a piece of junk,” he added. “So that’s what we’re concerned about.”

Roxana Tynan, executive director of LAANE, emphasized that all members of the coalition are in it for the long run.

“We understand our issues are inextricably linked,” she said. “If the port trucks don’t get properly maintained, we’ll go back to dirty air.”

The Port of Long Beach also enacted a clean-trucks program in 2008, although it lacked an employee-driver requirement – which disappointed alliance members. Later, the alliance was angry when the port settled a lawsuit brought by the trucking industry, though it praised a federal judge’s ruling on the matter.

Although the coalition has had its share of disappointments, the members are encouraged by their victories. At the workshop, Tynan reflected on why the coalition has been influential, and she said that its “breadth” and “depth” have been crucial.

The alliance represents a broad array of different organizations, she said. Also, the coalition leaders have tried to “go deep into grassroots neighborhoods” and ask residents to discuss their concerns.

At the workshop, she cited the efforts of East Yard Communities and the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma.

“Those two organizations were also able to help us reach out to the Wilmington community and the Long Beach community, to residents who are directly dealing with these issues all the time,” Tynan said. “Many have children suffering from asthma, struggling with issues of life and death for their kids.”

She added: “When you’re coming up in front of a political decision-making body, you need to have muscle, and you need to have political clout. And you need to have the ability to tell a direct story from those folks who are directly impacted by the worst elements of the problem you’re trying to solve.”

Looking forward, Tynan continues to focus on unity.

Not only is it impossible to win alone, she said, “we also shouldn’t win alone.”

Don’t Waste L.A.

The Don’t Waste L.A. campaign aims to restructure the waste-hauling system at businesses and large apartment buildings.

Its plan for changing the system already has cleared some hurdles, and alliance leaders hope the full City Council eventually will approve it.

The coalition is made up of about 30 organizations. They include environmental groups, community groups, workers’ health and safety groups, faith-based organizations, and social-justice groups.

The alliance came together to reform a flawed system, said coalition member Hillary Gordon, who leads the Zero Waste committee at the local Sierra Club chapter.

About 70 percent of the city’s waste comes from businesses and large apartment complexes. These properties are mainly serviced by private waste haulers, and they’ve largely been going without recycling.

In contrast, the city’s Bureau of Sanitation – which services single-family homes and small apartment buildings – has a relatively high recycling rate.

Among the coalition’s aims:

  • to increase recycling at businesses and large apartment buildings
  • to ensure that clean-fuel trucks are used to service these properties
  • to improve the routing of trucks, in order to reduce traffic and cut pollution
  • to protect workers who collect and sort trash

Gordon cited the story of Karla Campos, who says that she experienced intolerable working conditions as a waste sorter.

“There are very courageous people on those front lines, doing incredibly grueling work, in very degrading and inhumane conditions,” Gordon said.

After much collaboration, the alliance developed a plan to change the system. Under the plan, the city would award exclusive franchises for hauling waste from commercial properties and large apartment buildings. The city’s Board of Public Works backed the idea in February, when it approved a proposal for an exclusive franchise system. The board acted on recommendations made by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation.

Currently, businesses contract with private companies for trash collection. However, an exclusive franchise system would greatly reduce the number of these private waste haulers that operate in the city.

Under the proposed system, Los Angeles would be divided into 11 zones, and the city would contract with a private waste company to service each zone. The companies would have to meet strict requirements to win a contract.

Gordon says the proposal is a far cry from what’s in place currently. She calls it the “Wild West.”

The franchise system would give the city some regulatory control over these companies. City officials would be able to determine whether or not companies are actually diverting recyclables from landfills.

“It would give the city the ability to audit, to demand actual proof of what kind of diversion is happening,” Gordon said. “Now, diversion is self-reported.

The new structure would end “false diversion” and instead lead to “real, verifiable diversion,” she emphasized.

The Bureau of Sanitation has embraced the exclusive franchise idea for many reasons. It said that the franchise system would help city officials address several challenges:

  • ambitious city goals for diverting waste from landfills
  • a new California law taking effect next month, which mandates recycling at businesses and large apartment complexes
  • the environmental and health impacts of hauling trash

A report (PDF file) from the bureau outlines those environmental and health issues. When multiple waste haulers operate in a given area, then traffic and air quality become worse, according to the report. Also, waste haulers currently aren’t required to drive clean vehicles. Another issue: haulers don’t have to abide by state laws governing employee health and safety.

According to the bureau, the franchise system would increase recycling, require clean vehicles, lead to more efficient routing, and promote safe working conditions for drivers and sorters.

To get the ear of local leaders, coalition members knew they needed a solid and compelling message. So they spent a long time crafting that message.

The Don’t Waste L.A. alliance is a mix of politically powerful groups, as well as groups with less clout. And that combination has been an asset, according to Gordon.

“It really means something when the Sierra Club shows up at the table, when NRDC shows up at the table, when the Teamsters show up at the table,” Gordon said.

She added: “When we work together, not only between ourselves and among ourselves, but then also bring in those smaller groups that don’t have that clout — it just accentuates the message even more.”

A team representing the various constituencies has been meeting over the past two years. The members have been strategizing and developing a strong message.

The unifying goal is “diverting as much waste as we can, while protecting workers in the industry,” Gordon said.

She added: “We have a very united message that incorporates all of our concerns. We spent a lot of time honing that message, and then we spent a lot of time taking that message to the leaders in the city who are effectively going to make decisions on this matter.”

When the city had held meetings on the issue, coalition members have been diligent about making their presence known.

For instance, they’ve been very disciplined about attending the meetings held by the city’s sanitation bureau. She said that the bureau often tries to segment meetings — saying, for instance, that it wants to hear from the environmental community at one meeting, and the labor community at another meeting, and the business community at yet another meeting.

“We show up at all of the meetings, and we show up with a very unified message,” Gordon said. “And so they’ve gotten used to the idea that we are a coalition of environmental groups and labor groups with a unified message – and that really means something to them.”

Coalition representatives also have been spreading their message during one-on-one meetings with key decision-makers.

So far, Gordon has been pleased by the response. For instance, the head of the city’s Public Works board has addressed the coalition’s many concerns.

“It’s been really great to hear the president of the Board of Public Works in Los Angeles say she’s concerned about the trucks, the emissions, the effect on our neighborhoods, the wear and tear on roads, and she’s concerned about the incredibly touching stories that she’s heard from the workers in the industry,” Gordon said.

During the Green Jobs workshop, Gordon said she’s convinced that the franchise plan will be approved. She added that it won’t be easy, though, because there are people who are “not thrilled” with this idea.

That’s an understatement.

Another coalition also has banded together – this one opposed to the Don’t Waste L.A. plan. The coalition includes the established waste-hauling industry, landlords’ groups, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

According to the opponents, an exclusive franchise system would be an attack on the free market. They say that the proposal would create monopolies and put many small waste haulers out of business.

The opponents of the Don’t Waste L.A. plan have mobilized. During city hearings on the issue, waste haulers have expressed concern that they won’t get a city contract and will be out of business.

If the L.A. City Council does approve the exclusive franchise system, opponents likely will sue – and the NRDC will be ready to help defend the city, Pettit said. He emphasizes that the city has the legal right to have a franchise system in place for collecting and recycling trash.

Replying to the concerns of haulers who fear for their livelihoods, Gordon says that the new structure could provide plenty of job opportunities. The new system could create many new jobs not only in recycling, but also in the “remanufacturing industry,” which creates new products out of recyclable materials.

“You might be out of business as a waste hauler, but that doesn’t mean you need to be out of business,” Gordon said. “You could become part of the reuse industry. There’s going to be a need for materials to get around to the remanufacturing industry that we hope will be created.”

Tynan also cited a report that found that recycling creates twice the number of jobs as landfills and incinerators do.

As the dispute drags on, both sides are waiting to see what the city finally decides. In April, the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Waste Reduction and Recycling approved moving forward with the franchise plan and made some recommendations. One idea it brought up: designating a certain number of the city’s proposed exclusive franchise zones as “small enterprise” zones, designed to provide “competitive opportunities for small hauling companies.”

The matter has been referred to the city’s Energy and Environment Committee. Although it’s unclear exactly what will happen to the proposal, an NRDC representative said in a recent blog post that the ad hoc committee’s vote provided “great momentum” for the exclusive franchise plan.

Amid the controversy, the members of the Don’t Waste L.A. coalition are focused on staying united, Tynan says. She resists any attempts to divide them into separate groups, like “environmentalists” and “workers.”

“We come together on a set of issues, and we don’t allow our decision-makers to put us in different categories,” Tynan said at the workshop.

She added: “We are sending a message with these coalitions that you can’t separate out these issues.”

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