(CNSNews.com) - Labor union leaders are claiming another victory on Capitol Hill, after a Senate committee voted to block President Bush's "reckless plan" to open the U.S. border to "unsafe" Mexican trucks.
"The 1.4 million members of the Teamsters Union were heard loud and clear on Capitol Hill today," said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa in a news release on Thursday. He said the Teamsters are fighting to keep America's highways safe and secure (not to mention union job security).
However, business and industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calls cross-border trucking an important step in enhancing competitiveness, reducing pollution (from trucks idling at the border), and promoting economic growth in both Mexico and the U.S.
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday blocked funding for the pilot program announced last month by the Bush administration. The panel passed an amendment that requires the U.S. Transportation Department to publish details of the plan and to allow time for public comment.
The committee also voted to require that the pilot project meet congressionally mandated safety and security standards.
The Teamsters Union says the Bush administration is trying to get around safety requirements by repackaging its cross-border trucking plan as a pilot project.
Under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican and U.S. trucks were supposed to be traveling on each other's highways by the year 2000 - a deadline that came and went.
On Feb. 23 in El Paso, Tex., U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced a year-long pilot project that will allow a "select group" of Mexican trucking companies to make deliveries beyond the 20-25 mile commercial zones currently in place along the Southwest border.
But union leaders are skeptical: "My guess is that the DOT will select the 'cream of the crop' of Mexican carriers, whether they be large or small, to slant the data on violations, crashes and other compliance issues and proclaim the program successful," Teamsters leader Jim Hoffa said in his testimony before the Senate subcommittee.
"The Teamsters Union has successfully led the battle to keep our border closed for the past 12 years, and we will not let up in our fight as this measure moves through Congress," Hoffa said.
The labor union has expressed concerns about the Transportation Department's ability to inspect trucks (all trucks will be inspected and all drivers interviewed, the Bush administration says).
The Teamsters Union also questions the Mexican government's ability to meet U.S. standards for regulating hours of service, driver training and licensing.
The union raised homeland security concerns - as well as job security concerns: "There will be a strong temptation by unscrupulous employers to capitalize on lower-wage Mexican drivers and entice them into carrying domestic cargo in the United States," Hoffa warned.
Time for change
In written testimony to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, the Chamber of Commerce described the current cross-border trucking system as archaic and convoluted.
"A shipment traveling between the two countries requires at least three trucks and three drivers -- a U.S. carrier, a Mexican carrier, and a middleman between the two," the group noted.
Right now, Mexican truckers must stop at the border and transfer their cargo to U.S. trucks - wasting money, driving up the cost of goods, and leaving trucks loaded with cargo idling inside U.S. borders, the Bush administration said.
Things will only get busier: The Chamber of Commerce noted that under NAFTA, trade with Mexico has nearly quadrupled -- from $81 billion in 1993 to $332 billion in 2006.
The Chamber argued that trucking is vital to the two countries' trade partnership.
Likewise, the National Industrial Transportation League (a trade group representing companies that move their products by truck) said the pilot project should go forward.
John Ficker, the group's president and CEO, told the Senate panel that cross-border trucking is "essential to the growing economies of both countries." He said the pilot project will ensure a safe and efficient transportation system capable of meeting the projected growth in freight movement between the U.S. and Mexico.
He also noted that the U.S. Transportation Department has met all the mandated Congressional requirements to allow safe Mexican trucking companies access to US markets. "These requirements are as stringent as those applied to US-based trucking companies," Ficker said.
Transportation Secretary Peters said the United States has never shied away from opportunities to compete, open new markets and trade with the world.
"Now that safety and security programs are in place, the time has come for us to move forward on this longstanding promise with Mexico," Peters said in El Paso. She also noted that in response to the U.S. pilot project, the Mexican government has agreed to let U.S. trucks ferry cargo into Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the Bush administration is "committed to retaining a high level of security and safety standards under this program.
He said the "tough security measures" already in place will remain unchanged.
"Safety is the number one priority and strict U.S. safety standards won't change," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said.
Mexican trucks traveling on U.S. highways will not be allowed to carry hazardous materials.
This has been a good year for labor unions, now that Democrats have regained control of the House and the Senate.
Earlier this month, the House passed the Employee Free Choice Act, a union-friendly bill that would make it easier to form unions in the workplace. (See earlier story)
And the both the House and Senate have passed different bills hiking the federal minimum wage, although it's not clear when the two bills will be reconciled in a conference committee.
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