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Truckers decry labor law at Oakland port sending jitters through shipping industry

Over 100 truck drivers showed up at the Port of Oakland on Monday, not to move cargo but to protest a state labor law they say could end their independence — and their livelihood.

The truck drivers — independent owner-operators who work for themselves — temporarily held up other trucks trying to enter the port to pick up or drop off cargo, and backed up traffic at the sprawling shipping complex. They vowed to continue protesting through Wednesday amid chants of “free our drivers.”

At the center of the protest is the 2019 law AB 5, which will require an estimated 70,000 currently independent owner-operators to register as employees of trucking and other companies. The law has been held up since 2020 amid legal wrangling. However, in June the Supreme Court declined to review a case opposing AB 5, paving the way for California to impose restrictions on truck drivers.

“It’s going to put us out of business,” said Carlos Flores, 42, a truck driver for nearly 20 years based in Oakland. “We’re fighting for the right to work.”

Opponents of the legislation, commonly known as the “gig-work law,” say it will upend an industry that has long relied on independent contractors to move goods and force remaining independent truckers to pay tens of thousands of dollars in extra fees.

Many of the independent drivers say the current model gives them flexibility and the ability to grow a business. But the California trucking industry has faced sharp criticism for relying on workers who lack employment benefits like paid healthcare and sick leave.

The protest – coming after similar events at Southern California ports last week – is sending jitters through the shipping industry which is already stressed by pandemic-induced supply chain woes and labor shortages.

A major problem at the Port of Oakland is that shipping containers now languish at the port for nearly two weeks once they land due to kinks up and down the supply chain.

“You need room for new containers to come off the ship and have a place to put them,” said Marilyn Sandifur, a port spokesperson. Sandifur said Monday’s protest did limit cargo movement but said the port will need a few days to see if causes a noticeable backup.

At the Port of Oakland on Monday, protesters stood at multiple terminal gates halting vehicles. Last week truckers in Southern California staged events snarling traffic around the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Drivers said the actions are coordinated through social media and word of mouth.

Navdeep Gillm, the owner of a small freight company, said they are protesting because the loose coalition of independent drivers has struggled to find a political voice, unlike Uber and Lyft, which were able to skirt the law by pumping over $200 million into a successful ballot measure.

“Uber and Lyft were exempted. Why can’t we?” Gillm added.

Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, called on the state to give truckers a path towards “maintaining their independence.”

“Unfortunately, it didn’t matter how many independent drivers stood up and expressed concerns during the legislative process for AB5 in 2019, they were basically ignored and essentially told by the governor and the legislature what was best for them and their families,” said Schrap in a statement, adding “it is no wonder why these truckers have taken matters into their own hands.”

But a representative for Gov. Gavin Newsom said the truckers are just trying to put off the inevitable.

“Now that the federal courts have rejected the trucking industry’s appeals, it’s time to move forward, comply with the law and work together to create a fairer and more sustainable industry for all,” Dee Dee Myers, Director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), said in a statement Monday.

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