Monday, November 28, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Truckers barred from future protests at Port of Oakland

A judge agreed protests are protected speech — unless they block ports, disrupt business and could result in injury or death.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The Port of Oakland reached a stipulated permanent injunction with two protesting truck drivers who last month disrupted operations at the state’s third largest port over a new state contractor law. 

The Port of Oakland filed the lawsuit in Alameda County last month claiming protesters unlawfully disturbed its business and operations. For about one week, protesters — largely independent drivers — gathered around the port after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up hear the California Trucking Association’s case against Assembly Bill 5, a state worker classification law making it more difficult for workers to be independent contractors. AB 5 was passed in 2019, but an injunction prevented the law from being enforced on motor carriers until the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

Truckers in California say AB 5 will hurt their ability to earn a living and provide for their families by forcing them to become company employees and take pay cuts. They said they hoped to make a statement by shutting down cargo movement at the port, which moves about 10,000 containers every day. Long delays in movement for import and export containers temporarily halted the supply chain.

About 500 drivers gathered at Port of Oakland in California to protest a state law defining how independent contractors can conduct business, which may require them to become employees at cargo companies. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

In July, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association wrote Governor Gavin Newsom to seek answers about how the law will be enforced. They asked the governor to delay enforcement of AB 5 “until the state fully considers how the law will affect small-business truckers and provides remedies to ensure independent contractors are not forced to be reclassified as employees.”

As truckers protested and called for exemption, the port shut down some gates and terminals. After several warnings from the Port of Oakland director, the protests ceased. Now, officials have sought a restraining order and injunction to stop protesters from blocking access to the port, stopping or delaying traffic and trespassing in the future.

The port requested a permanent injunction, on the grounds that the protesters were causing a public nuisance by blocking the streets. They successfully negotiated with two of the defendants, Navdeep Ngill and Filmon Teklehaimanot.

“Defendants have violated these laws as part of a carefully planned and orchestrated campaign intended to block traffic, create life safety hazards for persons intending to work and/or do business on plaintiff’s property and prevent vital interstate and international commerce from being conducted on and through plaintiff’s property,” the port’s attorneys said. They acknowledged the protesters have protected rights to protest under the First Amendment, but said they are not permitted to prevent people and vehicles from entering the public rights of way "in the hopes of securing a captive audience or drawing media attention to their cause.”

On Aug. 2, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Delbert Gee granted the port’s request for a temporary restraining order. Now, Gee has granted a stipulated judgment to permanently block further disruptive protesting. 

He heard from one of the defendants in court Monday, Prudencio Umana, who said he did not understand why it was illegal to protest. 

“I did go to this protest, I’m not going to deny that, but I did not make any attempts to block the entrances of the longshoremen,” Umana told the judge. “I did not attempt to block any entrance or any trucks.”

The court told Umana that although First Amendment rights to protest are protected, it is still against the law and dangerous to stand in the street and block people and vehicles.

Gee signed off the port’s proposed order for a preliminary injunction against Umana. He told Umana to file a response to the complaint, adding, “I can’t urge you enough to please seek legal counsel if you do intend to go forward and litigate it.”

“I don’t have the money to be hiring counsel,” Umana said. 

“The Port of Oakland is likely to succeed on the merits of their claim with regard to the protest,” Gee responded. “They have submitted enough proof to the court for me to impose a preliminary injunction, to protect the safety of the people at the port as well as your safety.”

Gee agreed to the port’s request to draft a new preliminary injunction to use in Umana’s case, using the language negotiated in the stipulated permanent injunction.

“To my view, it's a little more defendant-friendly,” said the port’s attorney, Richard Elder. He said this injunction will be filed by Tuesday. Negotiations with other defendants will continue.

Per the stipulated permanent injunction agreement approved Monday, Ngill and Teklehaimanot and other protesters aligned with them will not intentionally block or impede people or vehicles trying to enter or come from Port of Oakland facilities. 

Ashar Ahmed, the attorney representing Ngill and Teklehaimanot, said the stipulation "reflects the parties' mutual agreement."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.