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July 22, 2022 3:29 PM, EDT

Truckers Defy AB 5 ‘Free Speech Zones,’ Continue Oakland Blockade

Truckers rally during a protest in front of Matson shipping at the Port of OaklandTruckers rally during a protest in front of Matson shipping at the Port of Oakland on July 21. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group via Tribune News Agency)

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A group of California truck drivers trying to force changes to the AB 5 state labor law brought the Port of Oakland to another standstill on July 22, continuing a multiday chokehold on one of the West Coast’s busiest shipping hubs.

Crowds of truckers blocked the few cargo trucks that tried to enter the facility in the morning despite warnings from port officials that protesters who do not abide by newly established “free speech zones” may be cited by law enforcement.

The statement from the Port of Oakland on July 21 signaled a tougher stance on truck drivers who until July 22 have had free rein to halt traffic at the facility. Major terminals announced a preemptive shutdown of operations on July 22, meaning the standoff between truckers and authorities will likely escalate once operations resume next week and if the protesters keep up their current blockade.

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“This effort, it made its point, it got people listening,” an Oakland police official told a crowd of protesters on July 22. “With that being said, there are some things that I don’t want to see happen — I don’t want to see law enforcement posture change.”

The self-employed truckers have no beef with the port. But they are using the unorthodox standoff to call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to amend AB 5, a controversial labor law that they say could end their business model. Some say they will continue the port shutdown until they get action from Sacramento.

But there are signs that members of the loose coalition of truckers — who are not affiliated with a union — are growing weary.

“I don’t know how long I can keep it up, we all have bills,” said Long Mach, who recently took out a 30-year loan on a new $168,000 truck. “But it’s a matter of whether I go back to work now and in a month or two I’m forced out of business.”

The protests are stressing supply chains at the Port of Oakland, which was already struggling to meet trade demands at a key hub for Northern California’s agriculture exports.

“We have buyers around the world that need a product,” said Paul Ewing, a manager at RPAC Almonds. His company is hoping to push over a million pounds of almonds through the port on July 25. If the shipment is blocked by protesters it will have a “big spillover effect.”

While dock workers are now entering the port and unloading ships, Marilyn Sandifur, a port authority spokesperson, said the backlog of container vessels has ticked up to 12.

“Prolonged stoppage of port operations at Oakland for any reason interferes with commerce, increases congestion, and harms business for everyone,” Danny Wan, the port’s executive director, said in an open statement to the truckers. “We must all get back to normal operations!”

AB 5, which will require around 70,000 truckers, along with other independent contractors, to register as employees, is commonly known as the “gig worker law.” The legislation is best known for forcing Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees and sparking a costly political battle by the ride-hailing companies hoping to avoid the regulation.

For California truckers, key provisions of the law have been on hold since 2020 amid legal challenges from the California Trucking Association. But in June the Supreme Court declined to review the case and the state is now free to enforce the new system of employee classification.

On July 21 the Port of Oakland said it will continue to act as a go-between for truckers and the governor’s office over AB 5. However, Newsom has indicated that he has no intention of pushing for a trucker exemption to the law, which is heavily backed by major unions who say the trucking industry is rife with wage theft and workplace abuses.

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