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.

McLaurin said the act that Los Angeles wants to change has been in place for 30 years because it’s easier to have a uniform set of rules overseen by the federal government that allows for interstate commerce to flow more smoothly.

“I think the Port of Los Angeles is going to further alienate business by pushing this change,” McLaurin said. “I know our membership is discouraged by this.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation, said many retailers and cargo owners that ship through the port are becoming weary of doing business in Los Angeles. His organization has co-signed a letter sent to transportation officials opposing any changes to the federal act.

“No one is opposed to the Clean Truck Program’s environmental goals, but I think we are losing patience with their tactics,” Gold said. “They should instead be focusing on how to better serve their customers.”

The port wants Congress to amend the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act, or FAAAA. The law prohibits any political subdivision such as the port from “enforcing a law or regulation that would affect a price, route or service of any motor carrier” with few exceptions. That essentially prevents the port from enforcing the employee mandate.

Dual track fight

As the lobbying continues, both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are awaiting a trial in December over a lawsuit brought against them by the ATA over some provisions of the ports’ Clean Trucks Program.

The program is a joint effort between the ports to sanitize truck emissions in the harbor where cargo is trucked in and out. The $2.2 billion effort essentially mandates that all trucks working at the port by 2012 meet low emissions standards set in 2007, among other guidelines.

The ATA favors the effort to require environmentally friendly trucks, but it strongly opposes the Port of L.A.’s plan to mandate employee drivers. It got that part of the program blocked with a preliminary injunction earlier this year.

However, the Port of Los Angeles has tried to characterize the ATA as opposed to clean trucks. The court decision “highlighted a crisis, that the trucking industry was misusing the FAAAA to block a first of its kind successful emissions reduction program,” Baker said.

Although both ports have similar clean truck plans, Long Beach is not seeking to require employee drivers, and it doesn’t plan to join in lobbying for a change to the FAAAA, Port of Long Beach spokesman John Pope said.

Gephardt, a longtime Missouri Democrat congressman and former presidential candidate, has longstanding ties to organized labor. His lobbying firm started working with the L.A. port in April.

In June, six members of California’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to the House Transportation Committee urging Congress to amend the FAAAA in the way the Port of Los Angeles wants.

“Despite the Clean Truck Program’s early and unprecedented success in emissions reduction and job creation, the program is under attack based on allegations that key components of the program are preempted under federal law,” the letter stated. “As a result, the FAAAA needs to be updated.”

Critics of the lobbying question why the port would pursue amending the FAAAA at the same time the port’s lawyers are arguing in court that the Clean Truck Program is able to move forward with the law as is.

“I think that says the port knows it isn’t going to win in court,” said Whalen, of the ATA. “I guess they figure if the law doesn’t help them in court, they’ll just help change the law in their favor.”

Whalen also pointed out that at the same time the port is telling lawmakers that the federal act is endangering the Clean Truck Program, they are also touting its success by announcing 5,000 clean trucks are on the road and more than half of its cargo is moved by those trucks.

“It’s a thin veil they’re using to get people to sign on to this without knowing their intentions of getting the truckers unionized,” Whalen said.

The money spent on lobbying comes out of the port’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the customers of the port.

Regardless, the time, effort and money spent to lobby for the employee mandate also comes at a potentially embarrassing time. The city has been struggling with a $530 million budget shortfall and has looked at early retirements for 2,400 workers. Likewise, port officials have acknowledged that they intend to cut their 1,073-person work force by 10 percent during the next fiscal year, but plan to enforce it through attrition, early retirements and by eliminating vacant posts.

Still, lobbying Congress is a common practice a city or state agency can use to push for something they want, said Mark Elliott, an environmental lawyer and partner at New York-based Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

“They aren’t prohibited from doing this but that doesn’t mean some won’t look down on it because lobbying has a negative connotation,” Elliott said. “From a strategy standpoint though, they are smart to pursue what they want both in court and in Congress. It just might rub some the wrong way.”

Despite the criticism, port officials defend their pursuit of amending the FAAAA, citing support from the ports of Oakland and New York-New Jersey, and environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club. The Teamsters also have signed on.

“We have a broad array of support from environmental, labor, local government, and private interests to pursue this,” Baker said. “The push to save the Clean Truck Program is well worth it.”

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