That said, for most people, the truck port could be an improvement on the current situation.
“The truck port idea is great for a lot of reasons: Congestion, fuel economy, which brings in greens and transportation planners, even your average commuter is going to be thrilled to have 10,000 trucks out of L.A.’s 4 o’clock congestion,” says Viscelli. “The big question is what those local jobs at the truck ports are going to look like.”
Right now, there is already a model of short-haul trucking in and out of (shipping) ports; it’s called drayage. And those jobs, from everything I’ve ever heard, are considered the worst in the business. “Local, for-hire driving has traditionally been lower paid and has some of the worst labor abuses,” Viscelli said. “And the quintessential example of this is port driving.”
Drayage truckers are paid on a per-load basis and end up bearing the brunt of any congestion at the port or on highways. The workforce in many coastal ports is primarily made up of immigrants without a lot of other options. They scrape by in small companies or as so-called owner-operators making very little money and working 18-hour days.
“What Uber is doing could end up creating good local jobs, but for that to happen, we have to have a robust enough policy framework to ensure that workers aren’t mistreated,” Viscelli said. “If you have labor that is poorly paid and treated, it’ll be used inefficiently.”
Doug Bloch, the political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents 100,000 teamsters in the West, had an even darker vision for how the truck-port model could play out.
“They are going to be creating more of a vicious circle. You’ll have independent contract drivers hauling stuff between the hubs and they’re just going to be more crappy jobs,” Bloch said. “And what will end up happening is this further erosion in job quality and this erosion is going to exacerbate the problem of the truck-driver shortage and it could potentially undercut employers like UPS, who have employees who make good wages and good benefits.”
In an industry where workers are already disempowered by a nasty labor model that has held down wages and kept many truckers from receiving benefits, the introduction of new technology is not going to go well for workers, no matter how well-intentioned Uber might be.
Even Bloch, though, thought the general vision embedded in the Uber study of an increase in transfer hubs was likely. “There are definitely going to be jobs created by the changes in the supply chain,” Bloch said, though he hastened to add, “But I’m not sure I agree that we’re going to have a net job increase.”
The impact that self-driving trucks would have on trucking jobs seemed obvious to people typing up reports on computers about the industry: Of course, self-driving trucks would mean less truckers. But what’s clear from the trucking-industry experts is that there is a lot about the job and the industry that has not been adequately captured in the studies that predict a job apocalypse. Or as the Western States Trucking Association’s Rajkovacz, who drove a truck for nearly 30 years, says, “I got more time sitting on the shitter in a truck stop than these people have spent driving trucks.”