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July 18, 2022 2:01 PM, EDT

Truckers’ AB 5 Protest Fueled by Lack of Clarity

 Protesters block a truck from entering the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif.Protesters block a truck from entering the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., July 18. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

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When more than 100 big rigs jammed the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last week, it wasn’t just your typical big cargo surge.

A 24-hour trucker protest staged on July 13 grew spontaneously, one observer said, as social media posts urged drivers to take a stand against Assembly Bill 5, a state law that threatens to put an end to the owner-operator trucking work model.

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Criticized by many as a platform that hurts truckers who have to pay for their own truck maintenance, gas and insurance, the owner-operator model has its supporters — and many of them turned out in force to protest the state’s so-called “gig law” that could put an end to their way of doing business.

By July 14, port officials said things were back to normal. But the protest on July 13 drew heavy congestion inside the ports and on the 710 and 110 freeways, temporarily closing one terminal on the Long Beach side. Another protest began July 18 at the Port of Oakland and was scheduled to last for three days.

The protest could have a dramatic impact on California’s 70,000 owner-operators who also make up much of the fleet that serves the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

More than 70% of truckers in the state’s largest ports are owner-operators, a category embraced by some but one that has drawn strong objections as being a system that “misclassifies” truckers and denies them the typical benefits of employees.

The system, said Jake Wilson, a sociology professor at California State University, Long Beach, who has spent 17 years studying the ports and logistics industry in Southern California, doesn’t offer workers paid health care, sick leave, vacation time or other benefits.

Supporters of the owner-operator system, including those who have found the model a lucrative path toward independence and owning one’s own business, say it allows truckers to have flexibility and call their own shots.

It can also be lucrative, said Matt Schrap, CEO of the nonprofit Harbor Trucking Association, which includes many of those drivers in its membership. Like any self-owned business, it entails a lot of work, business know-how and good planning, he added, but most net a six-figure annual salary.

On June 30, the Supreme Court refused to review a case challenging the legislation that would set out certain tests of the employment classification, which now could push thousands into compliance and put some out of business.

While AB 5 was passed in 2019, an injunction has been in place since 2020 preventing the law from going into effect. Now that the high court decided, for now, not to hear the petition, that all could change quickly.

“We understand the frustration and have been watching it for some time,” Schrap said. “There also just so much legal ambiguity. If you’re an employee, you don’t need to worry about it but if you want to remain independent, there are a lot of questions.”

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which has been trying to organize drivers, earlier this month said in a news release that it was “pleased” with the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the California Trucking Association’s case against AB 5.

Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 396, called the system abusive and guilty of “wage theft.”

Herrera said “AB 5 is now the law of the land in California” and he urged swift and full enforcement.

But others have suggested that confusion still surrounding the law needs to be addressed.

Both Schrap and Wilson said more clarity from the state should be provided as many truckers are trying to sort out the way forward.

The law has met with strong opposition from companies such as Uber and Lyft, who rely on independent drivers.

But it is the huge fleet serving the state’s large ports where much of the disruption would likely hit, possibly causing more supply chain snags.

“It’s clear,” Schrap said in a news release, “that a very large contingent of truck owners have taken recent developments regarding AB 5 as a direct threat to their livelihoods.”

Schrap’s organization was not part of the legal action, he said, but has supported truckers who he said “deserve some level of clarity.”

“How do they maintain being independent and provide for their families?” he said.

Wilson said port trucking has changed dramatically over the decades. That, he said, has led to a long-standing struggle as the Teamsters union has tried to intervene to represent the workers in a more traditional employee role.

“I think the majority of the workforce would ultimately like to see some benefits with a more stable system,” Wilson said, characterizing the owner-operator system as exploitive.

Costs for owner-operators can be high, especially factoring in fuel, truck maintenance and, eventually truck replacements that will be needed with high-cost zero-emissions models being required in the ports in the coming years.

While workers opposed to the owner-operator model have organized spontaneous protests in the recent past in the ports, Wilson said, this was an unusual demonstration in that it galvanized the other side of that argument.

For now, the focus returns to the state and Gov. Gavin Newsom to see how the law will be moved forward and implemented. U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel has asked Newsom to “ensure this recent ruling will not add burdens to our already-crippled supply chains.” She was joined by nine other California Republicans in the letter sent to the governor on July 14.

“A lot of folks would just like to know how they can proceed,” Wilson said, “so clarity is much needed at the moment.”

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