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Truckers are holding the Oakland port captive. Can Newsom end the standoff?

The Port of Oakland has been brought to a grinding halt this week as hundreds of protesting truckers hold a key commerce hub captive. The action — following a similar one at Southern California ports last week — has dealt another blow to supply chains already reeling from pandemic delays.

The self-employed truckers are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to amend AB 5, a controversial labor law that could end their business model. Some say they will continue the port shutdown until they get action. But it is unclear what, if anything, the governor could or will do to end the blockade at one of the West Coast’s busiest ports.

“When Newsom first signed this bill, no one really thought much about supply-chain demand,” said Dan Schnur, a California political strategist. “But that was before COVID. And before the war in Ukraine. Now it’s gotten a lot more complicated for him.”

The protest is the latest turn in the winding saga of AB 5, which will require tens of thousands of truckers, along with other independent contractors, to register as employees. The 2019 legislation — commonly known as the “gig worker law” — is best known for forcing Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees and sparking a pricey political battle by the ride-hailing giants hoping to skirt the regulation.

For California truckers, key provisions of the law have been on hold since 2020 amid legal wrangling. But in June the Supreme Court declined to review a case opposing AB 5, leaving the state free to start enforcing the new system of employee classifications and sparking the current protest.

But unlike Uber and Lyft’s efforts, pumping over $200 million into a successful ballot measure to exempt their drivers from AB 5, the port protest is an ad-hoc action organized largely on a 500-person WhatsApp group by a loose coalition of independent truck drivers and small-freight business owners.

The band of truckers also lacks the ridesharing giants’ political savvy. At the start of the protest on Monday, many truckers, including Navdeep Gill, one of the central organizers, said they were unsure how to contact the governor’s office to lay out their demands, which include abolishing the law or providing drivers an exemption to AB 5.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – JULY 21: Spokesperson Navdeep Gill and truck driver Kulginder Singh, from left, take part in a truckers rally during a protest in front of Matson shipping at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, July 21, 2022. Truck drivers have blocked access to container terminals in protest of state Assembly Bill 5, a bill that creates standards for classifying workers as independent contractors. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Both requests would require Newsom to rally his Democratic super majority in the Legislature and buck the stance of major unions that back the legislation.

Newsom’s office has said they have no plans to exempt truck drivers. In a statement Friday, the governor’s office said, “no one should be caught by surprise by the law’s requirements at this time.”

“The industry should focus on supporting this transition just as California has and continues to do,” Newsom’s office added.

The dispute centers around the status of drivers who own or lease their trucks and are classified as independent contractors. Labor experts say that some of these drivers are legitimate independent drivers who work for multiple businesses and set their own hours, but others often lease their trucks from a company and work for that same company full-time while paying all of their own costs and lacking any workplace protections. Those are the drivers, at least in theory, that AB 5 intends to protect.

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Still many truck drivers say the independent contractors’ model gives them the flexibility to take days off of their choosing and the ability to grow small trucking businesses in an industry that has become a particular economic engine for Sikh immigrants and their children.

So, without their hands on the levers of political influence in Sacramento, protesters are left to “create chaos,” said Marvin Figueroa, a veteran truck driver who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Because politicians follow the money.”

Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, said Newsom needs to open a dialogue with the trucking industry, although he did not offer any specific compromises that would meet the truckers’ concerns.

“The governor has the ability to stay the enforcement of AB 5 while folks get around a table and have a conversation about how this is going to shake out,” said Schrap. “Basically the (governor’s office) is saying ‘deal with it.’ “

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