Written by Sam Loesche, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Transportation Policy Advisor. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
When Congress passed a multi-year highway bill at the end of 2015, it was an accomplishment that many had long been looking to in the transportation world. The Teamsters applauded Congress for passing that important legislation. Officially known as the FAST Act, the highway bill was notable for what it accomplished for our transportation sector and also for what it wisely chose not to touch.
Lawmakers soundly rejected efforts by a small segment of the trucking industry to undermine the ability of states to set basic rules — as they have for generations — on the working conditions of truckers within their borders.
Republicans have long been the party of states’ rights and limited government. But in the past year, some have joined arms with a vocal minority in industry to transform that ideology, expanding the reach of the federal government into untold new areas that have long remained within the purview of the states. They claim this move was caused by a “rogue” ruling in 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court affirmed that California could enforce its own meal and rest break requirements for the trucking industry. Now some lawmakers are pushing legislation that blocks states from enforcing their own rules.
But the position of the federal appeals court in that 2014 court case was not “rogue.” It actually protected a bedrock of Republican principles: the importance of state sovereignty in the face of federal overreach. It maintained the ability of a state to enforce meal and rest break rules that had been on the books for nearly 100 years. If Congress had listened to the calls of some in industry, many lawmakers who may never have stepped foot in the state would have decided what was best for the residents of California.
This effort wouldn’t have ended in California. It would have overturned laws in every other state in America that had a meal or rest break law without any hearings, research or prolonged debate.
The issue decided in the California court case dealt with American truck drivers delivering and installing household appliances entirely in one state. The key question was whether those drivers should lose the basic protections afforded them under state law, solely because the piece of equipment they were hauling was made in another state or country. In today’s global economy, especially in a coastal state like California, how many goods being hauled don’t meet this definition?
What else might a state lose control of if the federal government blocked its ability to set basic labor standards for its citizens when hauling a good made in another state or country even though the drivers never leave that state? Should states be barred from enforcing a speed limit on trucks on local roads, or be prevented from setting local weight limits because that truck is hauling cargo with “made in China” slapped on the side? Of course not.
The preemption of state laws is not meant to undermine all state authorities. It is meant to be narrowly tailored to prevent obstruction of free and open commerce. A state law is only preempted by federal rules if it would impact the direct rates, routes or services of a trucking operation. In this example, the Ninth Circuit and the federal Department of Transportation agreed this was not the case. Even when drivers are operating in interstate or intrastate commerce, they are still protected by a laundry list of state and local laws that everyone agrees should apply to drivers for their own protection.
One focus of some carriers has been that these meal and rest break laws were preempted by the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1994. But a majority of state meal and rest break laws were already in effect in 1994. If Congress had intended to preempt them, they would have done so at the time. Trucking industry deregulation was never meant to eviscerate local labor protections. It was intended to deal with large-scale free market issues such as states dictating what carriers could charge for their services.
It is telling that after this supposedly rogue Ninth Circuit ruling, carriers ran to lawmakers seeking “clarification” of the meal and rest break decision, yet at the same time they also sought changes overturning any state law that would mandate payment to drivers for sick leave, family medical leave or workers’ compensation. And they wanted to make all such changes retroactive to 1994. These additional changes would have done nothing to change a driver’s ability to get paid by the mile. They simply would have said the state couldn’t compel them to get paid anything more.
That was not a “clarification.” It was a power grab to take money out of the pockets of drivers.
There’s another compelling reason to allow drivers to take a paid break – that’s safety.
The Teamsters know how rest breaks help drivers in the fight against fatigue. Helping drivers remain alert ensures that they don’t become another statistic in the effort to keep tired truckers off the highways. In an industry in which the fight is often about drivers being pushed to the limit on a daily basis, we should applaud states that try to take reasonable action to protect their drivers from feeling compelled to push themselves past what they think is safe.
If Congress begins to preempt local and state protections for truckers, drivers in this country will lose more than just meal and rest breaks. They will lose protections ranging from state disability laws to state religious discrimination laws. There is a reason that 23 Republicans joined with Democrats in the House in voting against this language during consideration of the FAST Act and why this provision was then rejected during conference.
The latest efforts to block state trucking laws is a broad-based attempt to transform the industry for the worse and should be rejected by Congress once again.
Editor’s note: Sam Loesche is a government relations representative and transportation policy advisor for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Previously, he was a political and legislative representative for the United Auto Workers and has worked in a variety of capacities with other labor and political organizations.