Jan 192008

Oakbook, Web site emphasize upbeat side of oft-maligned city

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER Until 2006, Oakland residents Alex Gronke and Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar were working at Red Herring, the Silicon Valley monthly, and trying to boost the magazine’s online presence. Around that time, Sharma-Sindhar went to a party in Fremont and mentioned to someone that she lived in Oakland.


Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar, left, and Alex Gronke at the publishers of the Oak Book, a guide to Oakland,

pose for a portrait atop their offices in Oakland, Calif.

The new acquaintance was horrified. “Why Oakland? Is it safe there?” she asked.

“I got really angry,” Sharma-Sindhar recalled in a recent interview, “and I started off on how cool Oakland was.”

The next day, while talking to her colleague Gronke, another Oakland enthusiast, they hit on the idea of launching a Web site about the pleasures of living in Oakland. They left Red Herring, and in 2006 they went live with a Web site —http://www.NovoMetro.com — to spread the word about Oakland. In December, they launched a printed magazine — called OakBook — to complement the online version.

The first issue of OakBook, the December/January 2008 edition, is a glossy presentation of local fashion, artists, sports, dining and clubs. Itis free, and the founders promise it will be widely distributed to cafes, restaurants and bookstores. Eventually, they will mail the periodical free to residents.

NovoMetro’s online’zine is still in its beta version, and its founders expect another version to be available later this month.

OakBook is expected to complement the Web site by expressing the founders’ goals: “We wanted to find another way to tell some of the interesting stories in Oakland and give people a new look that we enjoy life in Oakland,” Sharma-Sindhar said.

Gronke and Sharma-Sindhar are the only staff members. They financed the enterprise with their own money.

Have they maxed out their credit cards yet?

“Not yet. We have very supportive and loving spouses,” Sharma-Sindhar said.

“Who only occasionally wake up and say, ‘What are we doing?’” Gronke quipped.

The NovoMetro home page features stories by contributing writers about the community and artistic events, as well as links to news stories from nearby daily newspapers, such as the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. Links to 14 Oakland neighborhoods guide users to a map of the district they choose that indicates its retail, sports, schools, personalities and other features. They’re both very interested in Oakland education and have offered several articles on the subject.

These two entrepreneurs think Oakland residents don’t get enough news about their city. Neither do they think they are competing with Oakland Magazine, which emphasizes neighborhoods in the same fashion the newcomers are attempting.

“We know people who live in Oakland and don’t know there’s great stuff to do in Old Oakland,” Gronke said.

The enterprise is funded by advertising, and a year after launching their site, the founders say they’re breaking even and expect to be profitable this year. NovoMetro.com attracts 20,000 hits a month, a modest record, but Gronke says the hits have been growing 10percent monthly.

New mother Yoko Idate is delighted with NovoMetro.

“I don’t know any other Oakland
Web site
that is very useful for going anywhere local,” she said. “I have a 1-year-old baby, so I need constantly updated information.”

The NovoMetro operation is lean. The founders rely on a dozen or more contributing writers and hire an editor and art director on contract.

G. Pascal Zachary, a Stanford University lecturer in journalism and a former instructor of Gronke’s, said he hopes the enterprise will do well.

Zachary said NovoMetro is counting on its geographical appeal.

“Major cities, like Oakland, no longer have the amount of media coverage they used to,” Zachary said. “As more and more newspapers go online, you’re going to see more such experiments.”

Contact business writer Francine Brevetti at 510-208-6416 or fbrevetti@bayareanewsgroup.com.

 Posted by at 8:43 pm
Jan 012008

Trucks on middle Harbor RoadTrucks on middle Harbor RoadUse of independent drivers stymies attempts to cut air pollution

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER 

Ports along the Western seaboard are studying ways to cut diesel fuel emissions from trucks and ocean-going vessels.At the Port of Oakland, as well as ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, a cornerstone of that effort entails persuading trucking companies to hire drivers — rather than continue to use them as independent contractors. Port officials, as well as several community and environmental groups, say this plan will cut pollution because trucking companies can afford to run cleaner trucks than the independent drivers can.

The trucking companies, however, say they cannot shoulder the additional economic burdens of hiring drivers and acquiring trucks.

Nevertheless, trucking companies are being pushed to embrace some measures to improve drivers’ conditions and help reduce pollution.

More than 50 percent of the truck drivers who serve California ports earn no more than $30,000 a year after expenses, according to a report by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. On such wages, drivers cannot buy and maintain the most fuel-efficient rigs, the organizations argue.

Port of Oakland officials presented a proposal to its board June 7 that would encourage trucking companies to hire drivers and assume ownership and maintenance of hauling equipment. Such a plan would reduce pollution from poorly maintained old trucks and employers would provide better wages for the drivers, officials said.

Edward DeNike, president of Seattle-based SSA Containers, parent of Shipper’s Transport Express, which serves the Port of Oakland and others, said trucking companies — which act as brokers between drivers and the retailers or manufacturers that are transporting goods — cannot shoulder the additional expense of employees and their benefits, in addition to costs to procure and maintain equipment.Jogjait Dulay, owner of Golden Temple Shipping in Fremont, said the change would force him out of business.

“There’s no way we could buy one of those trucks,” he said.

New trucks can cost upward of $120,000. Used ones cost what the market will bear, depending, like automobiles, on make, year and condition. Mohammed Asif bought his last truck used in 2006 for $6,000. But Vereket Woldegorgis, another independent, spent

$20,000 for his second-hand equipment.

Several trucking company owners, such as Jerry Phillips of IMPACT Transload and Rail, based in Richmond, said drivers want to remain independent.

But this belief does not jibe with the petition 1,250 of the port’s 1,500 drivers signed, saying they would prefer to be employed by trucking companies. The Teamsters union and community action group Change to Win, which organized the petition drive, presented the document to the port Board of Commissioners in July.

The Port of Oakland has been waiting to implement its clean truck program until officials see how similar plans work at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

On Dec. 20, Los Angeles and Long Beach issued the first element of their Clean Air Action Plan, which levies a $35 fee on any 20-foot container coming in or out of the ports, or $70 for a 40-foot box.

Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cardero told the Los Angeles Times the surcharge will generate $1.6 billion by 2012 to help fund a more environmentally friendly fleet of trucks. The subject of truckers’ employment was not broached.

Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin said the Port of Oakland’s clean air and truck management goals would need the cooperation of the state, as well as continued discussion among three major ports and their trucking and shipper partners.

Meanwhile, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — which has tried for years to unionize port drivers — awaits the day when independent contractors will become employees.

Chuck Mack, director of ports for the Teamsters union, said, “We’re comfortable we’re going to change the model in Oakland and Los Angeles-Long Beach.”

 Posted by at 1:03 pm
Jan 012008

Asif in his truck

Work erratic for independent outfits, benefits nonexistent

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — In the larger of a two-room West Oakland apartment, three young men lie asleep, two on sofas, the youngest on the floor.It’s 6 a.m., and in the other room, their parents, Mohammed Asif and Dhalid Shaheen, have finished praying.

Asif weaves through the bodies of his sleeping sons to make his tea in the cubbyhole kitchen before he leaves his home to drive to the trucking company where he parks his diesel truck each night


At 55, Asif has been driving his rig to and from the Port of Oakland for six years, but he has not been able to eke out a sufficient living that would allow his family a comfortable dwelling. Two of his sons are adults, 22 and 21, and one works. In fact, the eldest bought a large-screen high-definition television, which dominates the front room of the modest apartment. The youngest boy, 14, sleeps on a mattress on the floor.

When Asif came here more than a decade ago from his Pashto-speaking hill village in Afghanistan, he was seeking a better life for his family. Life as a truck driver was good at first, he recalled.

“There were weeks I was bringing in $1,000 or more a week,” he said.

But things changed when the Port of Oakland began losing cargo shipments to Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. Nowadays, he’s lucky to net $600 a week.

Many truck drivers who serve the port are in a similar situation.

The drivers are on the front line of a debate raging at ports nationwide over the best way to reduce air pollution caused by idling trucks. At the Port of Oakland, that debate has crystallized into a proposal that calls for trucking companies to hire drivers — rather than use them as independent contractors. It’s hoped the companies can afford cleaner-burning trucks than the drivers can afford on their wages.

The drivers support this plan, saying it will help ensure them a livable wage, but companies oppose it, saying the additional expense would cut into their bottom line.

The drivers wait in their cabs for hours a day, hoping for a load of cargo to deliver. The side of the road where the trucks wait on Middle Harbor Road is dotted with the occasional plastic container of urine and detritus from the sandwich vans that provide lunch at midday.

Some drivers may wait up to 15 hours for no work at all. Other days, the work they get may not pay their bills.

According to a study by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, 83 percent of the 1,500 or more truck drivers who queue up daily outside the Port of Oakland are self-employed immigrants, like Asif.

These owner-operators are solely responsible for the purchase and upkeep of their 10- to 18-wheeled trucks.

Vereket Woldegorgis has been a self-employed driver for 15 years.

“I have to get in line every day,” he said. “I may get one or two loads all day at $50 a load. A load may take me 20 minutes or two hours to deliver.

“We are just surviving.”

Doug Bloch, campaign director of Change to Win — a coalition of trade unions, environmental and community groups — said drivers are supposed to get 70 percent of what the shipper pays to transport freight. Trucking companies are supposed to get 30 percent.

But Bloch said truckers often don’t know if they are getting their full share.

Ed DeNike, president of Shipper’s Transport’s parent company, SSA Containers, which handles cargo at ports throughout the nation, said a driver’s payments depend on how much he is prepared to work and how far from Oakland he is prepared to drive.

“We estimate they average $1,600 a week gross,” DeNike said, “but they probably make $800 to $900 a week.”

DeNike agreed truckers don’t earn much, but added, “It’s not as bad as people say.”

But Asif said he would jump at the chance to be employed.

“Most of my fellow drivers don’t want to be independent contractors because they know that as long as they are independent contractors, they cannot make a union,” he said. “If truck drivers do not get a union, the system cannot be fixed.”

The Teamsters union has been trying to organize port drivers for decades, said Chuck Mack, director of ports for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But the union cannot represent self-employed drivers.

A day in the life

On a typical day, Asif leaves his apartment early to drive his truck, which is parked on the property of Shipper’s Transport Express on Burma Road — to the trucking company he contracts with. He sometimes works for Golden Temple Trucking when he can’t get a load from Shipper’s Transport.

Asif and hundreds of other truck drivers arrive before dawn to line up at different terminals hoping for an assignment, if there are any, from their trucking company’s dispatcher, who arrives at 7 a.m.

They wait — sometimes for hours — with idling engines, their trucks spewing exhaust fumes. Angry neighbors in West Oakland complain of higher rates of asthma and other breathing ailments. But a study released in December by the National Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports found that truck drivers suffer from the same ailments and are at a higher risk for cancer because of the time they spend in their idling trucks.

They do not shut off their engines because of the chance they may move forward in the line at a second’s notice.

Still, Asif said, it’s a good day when he can report to the port even to wait in line.

Many days, he calls his dispatcher from home and finds there is no load for him to transport. That’s one more day without pay.

A load may take two hours to deliver or two days. Some drivers, like Asif, prefer to drive only in the area. Others are happy to go farther.

Some of the drivers come from as far as Sacramento.

“Most of us drivers barely make enough to cover our expenses,” said Asif, who said he is constantly in debt.

One week, he brought home a check for $116.

Asif pays nothing to Shipper’s Transport to park his truck on their property. But many trucking companies do charge truckers to park their rigs overnight, at a cost between $100 and $200 a month.

Asif, like other drivers, does not receive benefits from his clients, such as health insurance, Social Security, or workers’ compensation coverage.

According to EBASE, most drivers do not carry health insurance, finding it too difficult to afford.

Asif complains of respiratory problems from the diesel emissions, as well as the stress of repeated drudgery.

Asif recently had to take one of his sons to a hospital for medical tests. That was one more day he spent out of the serpentine line of rigs at the port, one less day of income and a medical expense to bear.

“Of course, I’m considering leaving this job,” he said. “There’s no income. My wife has asked me to go back to our home in Afghanistan. But the conditions there are so difficult. There I cannot earn even $2 a day. I did not realize how difficult things were when I came here.”

 Posted by at 12:55 pm