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Port of Oakland back in business as truckers protest contractor law

The self-employed truckers say California's independent-contractor law will cost them income — and could even cost them livelihoods entirely.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A protest of state contractor laws, which blocked California’s third largest port from operating for five days, has ended and the flow of goods has resumed through the Port of Oakland. 

Thousands protested at the port last week demanding that the state exemplify independent drivers from Assembly Bill 5 — a state law which would change how self-employed workers might be designated as employees. But after a crackdown on truck barricades that made it impossible to move containers through the harbor, the port is back in business. 

Port executive director Danny Wan said in a statement that the port is fully operational again. He said last week’s protests prevented the timely flow of international commerce  including medical supplies, agricultural products, auto and technology parts, livestock, and manufacturing parts.

“The truckers have been heard and we now urge them to voice their grievances with lawmakers, not the Port of Oakland," Wan said, adding Oakland and regional and state law enforcement are being deployed to ensure that operations and traffic stay on track. 

Protesters, many of whom are immigrants who sought asylum from authoritarian governments, said AB 5 will restrict their ability to make a living by requiring them to work for one employer instead of driving for multiple companies as they do now. They said that they also fear there will not be enough positions for all drivers once the law takes effect. 

A 2019 court injunction blocked the implementation of AB 5 after Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law. The Ninth Circuit later reversed the injunction.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, paving the way for AB 5 to take effect.

Outside Oakland International terminal at the Port of Oakland, where cargo shifts are halted as about 500 drivers gathered in California to protest a state law defining how independent contractors can conduct business. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

The truck drivers are waiting for a response from Newsom’s office, which has not come in as of Monday. They said Friday they have no plans to protest at the Capitol yet. 

Kimberly Sulsar-Campos, vice president of Oakland-based Iraheta Bros. Trucking, said there are some workers protesting at terminals behind the protected barricades this week. She said they have not sought legal counsel about fighting the port’s established “free speech zones” after about 200 truckers met with an attorney last week to discuss the port’s demands that they stay in these zones to demonstrate. 

Sulsar-Campos said truckers are essential workers who help keep the troubled supply chain moving, particularly through the issues which have plagued the country during the pandemic. They are still hoping for an exemption from the Legislature. 

“This is being pushed by the Teamsters Union. They have a declining membership and they’re chomping at the bit to be able to unionize,” she said, adding of the 9,000 truckers in Oakland, about 7,500 are independent contractors.

 “We’re not anti-union, we’re pro-choice,” Sulsar-Campos said. “I think it’s a good thing that the state wants to protect people, but in this case they’re creating a problem where there really was no issue. They (truckers) want to stay small business owners and they’re being told you cannot own a business any longer.”

Sulsar-Campos also called the bill “very racist” because the workers being affected are disproportionately people of color and immigrants from other countries. 

“I adamantly believe that maybe they were feeling they were making too much money and they wanted to put them down,” she said. “If these were white drivers, and these white drivers were protesting, they would be heard.”

Joe Rajkovacz, government affairs spokesperson for the Western States Trucking Association, said the owner-operators feel they made their point in shutting down the port for a week. But he said the association does not expect any movement from state leaders to reconsider AB 5's changes for independent truckers.

"They are disappointed that it appears port leadership and the governor don’t truly understand what is at stake for these truckers, namely, life will become much more difficult for them without some rational thinking in Sacramento," he said via email. "Many of these owner-operators have mortgages on their equipment and it seems the state, in its zeal to enforce a union backed attack on their livelihoods, could care less if they are forced into bankruptcy."

Sulsar-Campos and other operator representatives are considering all legal counsel options for the independent drivers. Rajkovacz told FreightWaves that “If you go to 10 different lawyers, you will get 10 different solutions."

The Teamsters Union chapter in Oakland did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The port reports the economic impact of the harbor’s maritime operations in California is estimated at $56.6 billion, including $281 million in state and local taxes. Direct employment from the operations stands at 11,000, with an additional 10,000 induced jobs and nearly 6,000 indirect jobs. About 10,000 containers move through the port on any given weekday.

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