Truckers’ Protests Over Labor Law Block Access to Oakland’s Port

For days, a convoy of truckers has blocked the roads that serve the Port of Oakland, crippling a major West Coast cargo hub already hampered by global supply chain disruptions.

The protest is meant to send a message to Gov. Gavin Newsom: Keep the drivers clear of a California labor law that they say threatens their livelihood.

The truckers, primarily independent owners and operators, are demonstrating in opposition to Assembly Bill 5, a law passed in 2019 that requires gig workers in several industries to be classified as employees with benefits, including minimum wage and overtime pay.

Along with a coalition of trade groups, the truckers want Mr. Newsom to issue an executive order putting off the application of the 2019 law to their work and to bring labor and industry to the table to negotiate a path forward.

A representative of Mr. Newsom said the state would “continue to partner with truckers and the ports to ensure the continued movement of goods to California’s residents and businesses, which is critical to all of us.”

Smaller protests were organized last week at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In a statement, Danny Wan, executive director of the Port of Oakland, said he understood the displays of frustration. But he warned against more delays surrounding the ports, a vital link in a supply chain already hemorrhaging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Covid-19 lockdowns in China.

“Prolonged stoppage of port operations in California for any reason will damage all the businesses operating at the ports and cause California ports to further suffer market share losses to competing ports,” he said.

When Mr. Newsom signed the measure into law, it received immediate rebukes from companies like Uber and Lyft, whose leaders argued that the law would change their businesses so severely that it might well destroy them.

The state law codified a California Supreme Court ruling from 2018 that said, among other things, that people must be classified as employees if their work was a regular part of a company’s business.

Both Uber and Lyft, along with DoorDash, quickly lobbied for a ballot measure that would allow gig economy companies to continue treating their drivers as independent contractors.

California voters passed the measure, Proposition 22, in 2020, but last year a California Superior Court judge ruled that it was unconstitutional. Uber and Lyft quickly appealed and have been exempt from complying with Assembly Bill 5 while the court proceedings play out.

But that wasn’t the case for the truckers. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge by California truckers, who under the new law are viewed as employees of the trucking companies they do business with.

Nearly 70,000 California truck drivers work as independent owners and operators, ferrying goods from ports to distribution warehouses. Trucking companies and the protesting drivers argue — as Uber and Lyft did — that if Assembly Bill 5 is applied to them, the drivers will have less flexibility in when and how they work.

Proponents of the law say the companies could simply take the drivers on as full- or part-time employees and continue to offer them flexible schedules.

A majority of port truckers in California are independent operators and do not work for a single company. A smaller number of drivers are unionized and are represented primarily by the Teamsters.

Matt Schrap, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, a trade group for transportation companies serving West Coast ports, said the “frustration is that there is no pathway for folks to have independence.”

“That frustration is boiling over into action,” Mr. Schrap said.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former state lawmaker who was an architect of the labor bill, rejected the idea that applying the law to the trucking industry would be a disservice to drivers.

“These truck companies have a business model that is misclassifying workers,” said Ms. Gonzalez Fletcher, who is about to take over as head of the California Labor Federation. “How they have been operating has been illegal.”

The trucker protests come as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is engaged in contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, representing the shipping terminals at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle.

Farless Dailey III, president of Local 10 of the longshore union, said that for their own safety, his members were not trying to get through the truck blockade.

“They don’t get paid when they don’t get in,” he said. “But we’re not going to put our members in harm’s way to pass through the line of truckers.”

Officials at the port said the largest marine terminal had been closed since Monday because of the protests. Three other smaller terminals have operated, but with a limited capacity.

Christopher S. Tang, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management, who studies supply chains, said the shutdowns at the Port of Oakland should not — for now — cause major issues for consumers.

“The impact will not be significant in the short term,” he said. “Many retailers have stockpiled inventory.”

On Thursday, German Ochoa, a trucker who lives in Oakland, arrived at the port, as he had every day this week.

As horns from semitrucks blared in the background, Mr. Ochoa said by phone that he was standing shoulder to shoulder with other truckers. Some held poster boards that read, “Take down AB 5!!!” and “AB 5 Has Got to Go!,” he said.

“This is taking away my independence,” Mr. Ochoa said. “It’s my right to be an independent driver.”

Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.

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