Editorial: Rolling back labor and environmental protections won't fix supply chain disruptions

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Long Beach, CA - October 13 Dozoens of container ships sit off the coast of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting to be unloaded. President Biden is set to announce Wednesday that the Port of Los Angeles would operate around the clock to alleviate a logistical bottleneck that has left dozens of container ships idling off the California coast and Americans waiting longer to get products manufactured overseas. The agreement to have longshoremen unloading cargo through the night is intended to speed the flow of toys, electronics and other gifts to American doorsteps during the holiday season. in on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 in Long Beach, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Dozens of container ships sit off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting to be unloaded. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

With everyone from President Biden to Gov. Gavin Newsom focused on fixing supply chain disruptions that have clogged the ports, created product shortages and raised prices, California business groups are offering their, um, solution: Roll back state labor protections and slash environmental protections.

There’s no question that global supply chain bottlenecks are having real impacts on Southern California. As of Tuesday, 76 container ships were anchored in San Pedro Bay, waiting an average of 12 days to dock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Empty containers are piling up in surrounding neighborhoods; one container toppled over and crushed a car.

In a letter to Newsom, the business groups, which include associations representing retailers, trucking firms and farmers, laid out eight mostly opportunistic requests that would do little to relieve the backup at the ports.

They urged the governor to suspend implementation of Assembly Bill 701, a law he signed last month that would require warehouse employers, such as Amazon, to disclose productivity quotas for workers “until the supply chain has normalized.” The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also prohibits quotas that in effect prevent workers from taking state-mandated breaks. C’mon — how does ensuring that warehouse workers have enough time to take bathroom breaks impede the supply chain?

They also urged him to suspend Assembly Bill 5, the state’s “gig worker” law, which sets strict rules on when workers could be classified as independent contractors. In the letter, the groups argue they need to suspend the law to "allow independent truckers to operate" in the state, again, until the supply chain has normalized. But there's no prohibition now; trucking companies are currently exempt from the law, pending a challenge being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And they asked him to delay Southern California’s new rule requiring that sprawling warehouse distribution centers cut pollution from their facilities or pay a fee to help reduce emissions off-site. This first-of-its kind regulation was adopted in May and is designed to cut toxic diesel soot, which increases cancer risk, and the pollutants that made this the smoggiest region in the country. This regulation is hardly a burden on the supply chain. The cost of complying will be peanuts to a logistics industry experiencing record demand.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that business groups are lobbying for less regulation. It’s a perennial plea — and, at times, a worthy one. Long Beach, for example, prohibits warehouses and distribution companies from stacking more than two shipping containers to prevent visual blight to the surrounding communities. Under industry and political pressure, the city temporarily relaxed the rule last week to allow the stacking of four or even five containers, which could free up space and equipment to move more containers, thus helping to ease the bottleneck.

There may be reasonable tweaks to local and state policies to address this moment, but California cannot trade away progress on larger environmental or labor protections that are essential to building a healthier, more equitable state, for "solutions" that solve nothing.

Besides, whittling down labor protections in the logistics sector will only hurt the supply chain in the long run. While Biden urged operators at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to work around the clock to move backlogged containers, terminal operators are seeing little demand for nighttime pickups. Why? There is a shortage of truck drivers and warehouse workers — partly because the sector is notorious for low pay, poor conditions and unreliable shifts — and there are not enough workers for 24-hour-a-day operations. Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, has said the industry needs to rethink compensation and benefits to attract and retain the skilled, stable workforce needed for sustained growth.

The state can't ease up on environmental protections, either. Southern California has a 2023 deadline to dramatically cut smog-forming emissions to meet Clean Air Act standards. The region will almost certainly miss the deadline as it is and could face hefty federal penalties, including the withholding of billions of dollars in federal highway funding.

The world is experiencing an international supply chain disruption that has been years in the making. The state cannot solve it on the backs of struggling workers trying to make ends meet and communities inundated with freight pollution.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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