"I cannot comprehend why people don't respond to this as a national crisis," said Michael Belzer, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan, speaking at a recent intermodal seminar sponsored by the Transportation Research Board in Long Beach, CA.
Belzer characterized the nation's ports as "sweatshops" where drivers are concerned, and said if something isn't done about it, there won't be any drivers left.
Harbor drivers, mostly independent contractors, are paid by the load rather than by the hour or the mile. As waiting times and expenses have increased, they are making less and less money. Belzer says the drivers average only $7 an hour after paying for fuel, insurance, maintenance, repair and truck payments. Low wages, long hours, piecework and unsafe working conditions, he said - sweatshops.
Another speaker took issue with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Eugene Pentimonti, a maritime engineer and former shipping executive, said the union thwarts employer attempts to introduce technology that would improve productivity and therefore reduce driver wait times, such as paperless gate operations and automated dispatching.
But ILWU Vice President James Spinosa placed the blame back on the employers' shoulders. During contract negotiations last year with the Pacific Maritime Assn., the issue of technology came up. The ILWU says automation, such as robotics at marine terminals, would cost jobs. The union will go along with automation - as long as jobs created by that automation are given to ILWU workers.
The situation is only getting worse. Richard Hollingsworth, president of an economic development corporation representing cities near the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, said that cargo volume is expected to triple by 2020, and the freeways won't be able to handle the traffic.
To avoid gridlock, Hollingsworth recommended that marine terminal gates be automated and kept open longer. The ILWU said working around the clock is no problem - but some employers don't want to pay the higher wages for second- and third-shift work.
Joe Nievez, president of Qwickway Trucking in Los Angeles and immediate past chairman of the California Trucking Assn., also weighed in on the 24-hour issue. He pointed out that terminals are open for ocean-going vessels 24 hours a day; why are trucks limited to business hours?