Garnica, Gray and Pearce at Thursday's forum. Photo by Keeley Smith.
The atmosphere evolved from soft and friendly to slightly charged last night at the Reef Restaurant, where Long Beach Second District City Council Candidates took part in a forum hosted by the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA), the port’s coalition of intermodal carriers.
Executive Director Weston Labar threw the questions to the candidates—Joen Garnica, Eric Gray and Jeannine Pearce—in a formal setting that also allowed for active crowd participation from a clearly business-friendly port crowd.
“The more I learn about the port, the more love I have for the port,” said Jeannine Pearce in the forum’s opening minutes, echoing the sentiments of both Garnica and Gray.
All three candidates appeared to have similar ideas in mind on handling the port—the city’s top source of jobs: balancing business with community needs, and studying potential impacts of proposed projects such as the removal of the Terminal Island Freeway before making any rash decisions.
“You don’t want to create silos where you solve an issue for one that creates issues for another,” said Garnica. She stressed looking at issues from a “30,000 foot ladder” to bring stakeholders together.
The majority of the forum centered around the candidate’s understanding of the port and their plan for its future.
Garnica said her number one priority would be increasing the port’s competitiveness worldwide while also creating policies that incentivize being a good neighbor to the community. Gray said his priority would be continuing to grow the port, making it competitive with a “pragmatic, balanced approach.” Pearce chimed in, stating she would “connect the dots” to make the port work as a whole to move goods faster, while minding the needs of the community.
“My main concern is to make sure everyone’s at that table,” Pearce said. “The workers are at the table, the terminal operators are at the table, that everybody is there so that we can be on the same page.”
Garnica said congestion, and truck drivers waiting three hours to drop off or pick up cargo, is unacceptable. She, as well as the others, mentioned safety as a huge issue, as well as sustainability.
LaBar asked, “How would you balance the economic needs of the businesses that service the ports and the jobs they create with the environmental demands of community advocates and California regulatory agencies?”
“That’s easy,” said Pearce, to the crowd’s delightful applause. “Just keep doing what we’re doing, right?” She commended the companies and the port on “stepping up to the plate” and creating more sustainable, economically friendly port strategies.
Where the candidates differed, or were left to begrudgingly confront the crowd, centered on the labor disputes between independent contractors and carrier companies—a topic on which the crowd appeared to have strong opinions.
As the Post previously reported, independent contractors and drayage companies have been involved in ongoing contentious disputes. The contractors have picketed various shipping terminals numerous times, alleging wage theft and employee misclassification.
“The HTA does not want to discount the rights of workers in the drayage industry; however it is important to note there are ample job opportunities in each model of the industry,” an HTA release stated in November. “At this time, drivers can find work as an independent contractor, union employee, and non-union employee. The HTA firmly advocates for the choice of companies to determine the type of labor/business model they would like to employ, as well as the choice of drivers to choose what types of companies they would like to drive for.”
Garnica said that, as a business owner herself, she believed in bringing all sides together to discuss a just and efficient solution to the ongoing tension.
"How do we come together as independent contractors, to come up with the rates?" she asked. "And the market will dictate that...If we all come together, if that particular industry, if the truckers come together and dictate what the market rates will be, it will create a balance. But again, we are pre-empted by federal law so we need to answer some rules.”
“At the end of the day, I think that anyone who’s a trucker has the right to remain [...] this is an issue that I believe federal law will dictate in courts, what an independent contractor consists of,” said Gray. “As a city councilmember, I would foster a dialogue between the groups...I would foster both dialogues.”
“Obviously, everything that my colleagues have said, the courts will dictate, the courts have been dictating, and teamsters and truck drivers have been having lots of wins, and it’s taken them a long time to get there,” said Pearce. “They’ve obviously been doing a lot of strikes, they’ve been going out on picket lines, and that hurts business.”
Pearce elaborated, maintaining strikes were bad for everyone, emphasizing the need for a table for both parties to come together to discuss both sides and compromise. She said she “obviously” supported the rights of truck drivers to join a union to improve their lives, but her job was fostering a discourse between both sides to come up with a solution.
Garnica explained her support for independent contractors, and her belief that, if they pursue growing their business in a smart way, they will find success.
“As an employee, you’re capped as to how much you can grow,” said Garnica, to applause. “As a business owner, it’s limitless.”
Gray said an independent contracting business is different from operating other types of business. “There are a lot of truck drivers who are not that type of person, and I think in general it really depends on who they’re working for, their salary as an employee, versus how many employees they can take on as a contractor.”
Pearce’s response proved the most controversial.
“Obviously there are different business models out there, and, as Eric said, it does depend, but I have been in a room with 300 truck drivers that are saying ‘It’s not working for me, and the system is broken,’ and I’m sure there is another side that I need to sit down with —you guys in this room—where we need to figure out what the line is,” she said.
She maintained it wasn’t her decision to decide, but that every worker should have a salary that is “respectable” and allows them to “put food on the table.”
A man in the crowd said the 300 drivers she mentioned was a fraction of the 12,000 truck drivers working, pushing Pearce to maintain that she would like to sit down with the members of the room and be “educated” on their side, so maximize the strength of the port in addition to maintaining the quality of lives of the workers.
The closing remarks left some room in the candidates’ platforms, as they refine their talking points for the next forum, to take place Thursday, February 11, at the Ebell of Long Beach. Candidates will be discussing small business at the Alamitos Beach Neighborhood Association meeting.