TWIC program bad news harbor trucking industry

Published 17 October 2006

Experts expect a large drop-off in truckers when the government begins registering port workers; 25-50 percent are illegal, and few others want these jobs; wages are down, yet demand is high as foreign trade booms

The National Retail Federation has, as we reported yesterday, proclaimed itself satisfied with the SAFE Port Act, the port security legislation that most famously requires the installment of radiation detectors at twenty-two U.S., but not foreign, ports within the next year. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be worried about the bill’s economic impact. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the SAFE Port Act includes jump-start funding and regulation of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) Program. TWIC demands background checks and biometric identification of all workers with unrestricted access to port facilities, and this includes harbor truckers, many of whom are illegal and undocumented. Experts worry that the program will drive many off the job, driving up shipping costs and causing delivery delays. “We need TWIC for security,” says Bill Madden, general manager for terminal services at Long Beach Container Terminal Inc. “But it will cause a big dislocation. The truckers are the guys who make this place work.”

Of the 750,000 port workers expected to be covered under TWIC, 110,000 are truck drivers, and most of them are Hispanic, particularly at the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Twenty-five to 50 percent are believed to be illegal, and all are performing a job few others want. The 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry, experts say, devastated wages for harbor truckers, with the average annual pay $25,000. Truckers are paid by trip, not on an hourly basis, and so many are forced to wait for long periods before picking up their haul, and yet the margins in the industry are so low that there is little room for negotiation. A 1996 strike by six thousand Hispanic truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach collapsed entirely, and despite an effective walk-out during this year’s immigration battle, few truckers can afford to take even a single day off.

DHS does seem aware of the problem. Unlike trucking companies, who often claim to be unable to police the authenticity of their employees’ documentation, the federal government has no such excuse, and a significant decrease in the total number of working harbor truckers is expected. “We will continue to work with industry, port authorities and workers to address it as we roll out this vital security measure,” says Darrin Kayser, manager of strategic initiatives for the Transportation Security Administration. Yet there seems little they can do, especially as the demand for drivers continues to increase. “Overall, the value of international trade in and out of the U.S. climbed to $949 billion in 2004, up 29% from 2000,” the Wall Street Journal reported. We like the TWIC program, despite its delay, but have to admit we are stymied as to a solution to this basically economic problem. The truth of the matter is, security has a price, and this seems to be an unavoidable one.

-read more in Miriam Jordans Wall Street Journal report

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