At the same time the city-owned Port of Los Angeles is looking to lop off 10 percent of its employees, it has hired a big-name lobbying firm to try to change federal law that could help union truck drivers organize at the port.

The port has hired the Gephardt Group, an Atlanta-based consulting firm founded by former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, for $50,000 to help on the matter, according to interviews and public records obtained through the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

The goal would be to loosen the law so the port could mandate that truckers who drive into the port not be independent owner-operators but employees of big trucking firms. As employees, the drivers would be able to organize as Teamsters, which they cannot do as owner-operators.

The port has tried to push through this employee mandate as part of its Clean Trucks Program. But the employee mandate is frozen by a preliminary injunction after a challenge by the American Trucking Association. The port has appealed; a trial is set for December.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and supporter of the employee mandate, deferred questions on the lobbying matter to the port.

“The Port of Los Angeles is part of a national coalition that is educating federal lawmakers about needed improvements in federal law,” said Arley Baker, a Port of Los Angeles spokesman. “We are working with lawmakers to update the federal framework to allow ports to contribute to national clean air goals.”

The trucking community is especially paying attention to the lobbying. The trucking association views it as another attempt by the city and its port to push a union agenda.

“And they are spending money on lawyers and lobbyists at a time when 10 percent of their staff is supposed to be laid off soon. It just doesn’t look good,” said Curtis Whalen, an executive with the trucking association.

The move to change the law also doesn’t sit well with many other of the port’s business stakeholders, such as shipping lines and retailers, which say the port is overstepping its bounds and could set the stage for all ports, not just Los Angeles, to mandate various programs in each port that might drive up costs.

“It’ll be a nightmare to have a patchwork of regulations different at each port,” said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a San Francisco-based trade association that represents the ocean carriers and terminal operators working at the L.A. port.

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