Call the National Guard? California businesses call port backlog an 'emergency' situation

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Updated Nov 2, 2021
A soldier in the National Guard drives a truck
Pfc. Ronald Carstetter, motor transport operator, 1067th Transportation Co., drives the M1070 Heavy Equipment Transporter on an off-road course on Aug. 10, 2016 at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
Maj. Jason Fetterolf

President Joe Biden on Thursday floated the idea of calling in the U.S. National Guard to address truck driver availability as port backlogs and inflation swell heading into the holiday season, and while the troops haven't deployed yet, other industry watchers are already calling for a state of emergency. 

Asked point blank if he'd consider involving the National Guard to move freight, Biden said yes at a CNN town hall on Thursday, despite the fact the National Guard can only be deployed by state governors. 

“The answer is yes, if we can’t move—increase the number of truckers, which we’re in the process of doing,” Biden said, without clarifying what actions his administration was taking to increase the number of truckers on the road. 

Later, his press secretary would walk back those claims, saying the administration was "not actively pursuing the use of the National Guard on a federal level." 

But even short of boots on the ground, many industry watchers are calling for California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency. Nineteen business organizations in California, including the California Trucking Association, the California Retailers Association, and the Southern California Logistics Council wrote a letter to the state's executive asking him to take extraordinary measures to combat the port backlog, including rolling back some of the state's ambitious regulations. 

The letter praised Biden's plan to move to 24/7 port operation, but ultimately said it "will do little without immediate action from the state to address other barriers that have created bottlenecks at the ports, warehouses, trucking, rail, and the entire supply chain."

The letter's assertion tracks with CCJ's reporting that showed trucking industry professionals see more trouble at the ports than simply hours of business. 

Beyond simply providing retail goods for the holiday season, the letter said the crisis at the ports would increase inflation, which it called a "de facto regressive tax." Indeed, recent economic data has suggested that despite wage growth across the economy, inflation has outpaced these gains and the coming Thanksgiving holiday could hit its most expensive level on record with everything from coffee to meat to furniture soaring in price for consumers. 

Citing the environmental risk of having an unprecedented backlog of steamships sitting at sea and the impact on California's considerable agricultural exports not getting to port on time, the letter called for the following steps. 

  • A state of emergency declared to expedite breaking up bottlenecks
  • Suspension of AB 701, which puts quotas on how much work warehouse workers can do
  • Suspension of the AB 5 labor law that would effectively end the owner-operator model in trucking (though it's already stayed as the CTA looks to bring the case to the Supreme Court)
  • Flexibility with the California Air Resources Board and taking into account the emissions caused by long wait times in drayage operations at the ports. 
  • Suspension of regional regulations that limit the movement of goods, such as the "Indirect Source Mandate" and other rules around parking and emissions. 

Could temporary deregulation help with staffing issues?

CCJ sister publication Overdrive has extensively reported on the challenges at the ports and heard from many professionals who say overregulation has disincentivized drivers from doing port and drayage work even as rates soar

Recently, the American Trucking Associations' Chief Economist Bob Costello upped his estimate on the need for drivers by 30%, saying the industry is now 80,000 drivers short and that could easily grow to 160,000 by 2030. Costello mostly blamed this problem on demographic trends, but also mentioned poor infrastructure and lack of investment in things like truck parking as reasons. 

Similarly, for the fifth straight year, the American Transportation Research Institute's Top Industry Issues report found "driver shortage" as the industry's number one problem, this time by an incredibly wide margin.

The trucking industry in California seems convinced that clawing back some of the state's many regulatory initiatives, specifically the vaccine mandate and rules around emissions, could help get goods flowing again

On the federal side, Biden's administration has made it clear they're considering every angle on how to get more trucks leaving the ports, including calling in the national guard. 

As the letter from the California business groups points out, the state is no closer to its climate goals with "floating warehouses idling off the coast, wasting fuel" than it would be by letting a few trucks idle a bit longer outside of warehouses and port gates. And if, for some reason, Newsom prefers the emissions at sea to the emissions on land, a newly imposed $100 daily fee on ocean carriers that leave containers lingering at the ports of Long Beach or Los Angeles may further convince him to act.