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April 5, 2007

More on the Teamsters vs. Mexican Truck(er)s Hubbub

The Teamsters and their allies continue to attempt to smear The NewStandard’s reporting. Here we present a follow-up letter by union press secretary Galen Munroe, then a response from TNS staff.

I appreciate your responses and your opinions.

There was one significant detail concerning the statistics Michelle cites that Fred McLuckie did in fact make her aware of during the interview. (I only bring this up now because I wasn't able to confirm with Fred until yesterday.) The DHS representative testified in front of the House committee that there were an estimated 40,000 violations within the commercial zone in Texas that were never reported. According to his testimony, the inspectors just decided to stop submitting the violations. How accurate can those statistics be? How many unreported violations were never discovered?

There are giant, gaping holes in this system and that is the problem – not racial bias. I would suggest TNS take a closer look at those issues. You say you didn't find any data to support the safety claims and that the story was originally supposed to be about those concerns. So answer this question: How did you go from a story on safety claims to a one that questions whether there is a racial bias? The one quote you cite to support this idea seems to be an answer almost begrudgingly given. It is a disservice to everyone fighting this pilot program, from members of Congress to our own union members, to even suggest that this is about the color of the drivers' skin rather than the trucks they are forced to drive.

I can't help but feel that this is just an example of irresponsible journalism.

–Galen Munroe, Press Secretary
International Brotherhood of Teamsters

TNS responds:

Mr. Munroe noted a "significant detail" that he believes we should not have left out of our story: the 40,000 traffic violations cited against Mexican trucks within the Texas commercial zone, which he says were never reported by the government. The article did in fact note the shortcomings in the DOT’s reporting system for such violations.

But we believe the data cited here would not have been informative in this article, and in Mr. Munroe’s letter, its presentation is patently misleading. The source provided no comparable data for US-based trucks and drivers, or even details on the nature or timeframe of those citations, making it nearly impossible to place these statistics in the context of overall highway-safety enforcement. (Also, the source was not a DHS official, as Mr. Munroe asserts, but rather the DOT's inspector general. The congressional testimony is here for your review. We linked to the full text of the Senate testimony in the sources list attached to our article, as we did for the statements of Mr. Hoffa and Public Citizen.)

If we were on a mission to make Mexican trucks and truckers look good compared to their US-based counterparts, we could easily have cited accident figures, which make US trucks look bad compared to the Mexican vehicles that have driven in restricted zones on our side of the border. Even adjusted for relative numbers of vehicles, US trucks are involved in a disproportionately high share of overall accidents. But we knew reporting that would not have been fair, since US trucks drive longer routes inside the US, possibly on more-dangerous roadways. We weren’t pursuing an agenda – so we didn’t bother going there.

But this gets to the crux of the matter. Our critics are challenging what is possibly the most pro-labor general-scope news organization in the United States, as if we set out to exonerate Mexican trucks and drivers while vilifying Teamsters and other critics of the proposal in question. Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone can see by reviewing our archive of 306 labor-related articles.

Mr. Munroe asks, "How did you go from a story on safety claims to one that questions whether there is a racial bias?" It’s called journalism, sir. We followed the story to its logical conclusions, analyzing the union’s arguments alongside hard data and viewpoints seldom heard in the mainstream debate on this issue. Journalism simply cannot rely on he-said/she-said accounts of issues. We check our sources’ sources. And when we did that, in this case, we found a tremendous amount of obfuscation taking place. And we called the Teamsters out on it.

Understandably, that must sting a bit.

No partisan ever likes it when the facts of a case do not substantiate their position. That’s where good journalists come in. We didn’t set out to prove anything about safety records, so we were open to the story changing. And we didn’t set out to protect the Teamsters’ reputation, so when we reflected on the potential effects and biases of the Teamsters’ argument, we saw that protectionism, xenophobia and racism could well play a part.

As for the quote from Dan La Botz, which insinuated these biases, we reject Mr. Munroe’s charge that La Botz gave his answer "begrudgingly." Indeed, he wrote a letter conratulating us for not accepting the standard line, shared by labor and anti-immigration sources alike. And Mr. La Botz’s previous writing on related matters bears out that he needed no pressure from us to level the charges he did, and that we used his words appropriately.

Regarding the alleged "disservice" we have committed against "everyone fighting the pilot program" – again, we take exception. It is our job to provide a service to the public, not to one side of any controversial issue. Maybe if you’re in the business of hiring journalists to write sympathetic articles precisely intended to bolster your own case, it is frustrating when someone comes along and takes a look at more than cherry-picked anecdotal evidence and sees a more-complex problem.

Mr. Monroe encourages us to look at the "giant, gaping holes" in the system. This makes us wonder whether he read the article. It is precisely those holes in the US system which led us to report the article as we did. But unlike the Teamsters, who only want to point out how those holes put the American public at risk from Mexican trucks and truckers, we found it necessary to note that those holes also affect US trucks and truckers. It is this inclusion of additional evidence about holes in the system that seems to have the Teamsters most upset because it highlights giant, gaping holes in their own arguments.

Since we are not a partisan or nationalistic news organization, we couldn’t turn our back on the evidence we found just because we sympathize strongly with American truckers. Unlike the so-called International Brotherhood of Teamsters, we feel an obligation not to shun Mexican truckers. Indeed, we felt it important to relay Mr. La Botz’s and others’ concern that the Teamsters are missing a golden opportunity to actually operate in solidarity with the Mexican truckers about whose safety and working conditions the American union espouses tremendous concern.

The union’s official line, after all, actually touts the idea that Mexican drivers lack the rights, standards and union backing supposedly enjoyed by their American counterparts. Critics point out that while the campaign for closed borders is politically opportune for its membership, the organization’s purported empathy with Mexican drivers has translated into little actual impact in terms of grassroots outreach to those most in need of solidarity.

Over the years, the corporate media has taken it upon itself to smear and slander the labor movement – the Teamsters in particular – nearly every chance they get. But here comes The NewStandard, which is so heavily unionized its workers actually run the entire operation without bosses – and one critical article gets us blacklisted, while CNN and the New York Times and Fox News get all the interviews they can malign (on the rare occasions they pay any attention to labor). That speaks volumes.


pumasunam: Well Done

Thank you for shedding some light, not only on the mexican trucker issue, but on how you make decisions as a news organization. Thank you for also providing a forum in which even the Teamsters are allowed to voice their concerns and displeasure at your article, even if they are wholly unfounded and raise even more suspicion of racism

tj728: a cheap shot is a cheap shot

Your report was clearly biased. Have you ever driven in Mexico? It sounds like you reported this story by searching Google.

The Teamsters are right, that quote did not accuse them of racism. It said protectionism can slip into racism. That's a big difference.

And why didn't you give the Teamsters a chance to comment on your claims of 'racism'? It sounds like you blindsided them. Not fair.

And remember Oaxaca? American unions cannot go there and organize. It's against Mexican law. And from what I understand unions in Mexico have splintered, so growing solidarity at a grassroots level would do nothing to stop this program next month.

From your story it sounds as if you're okay with more bad truck drivers on the road. We can at least record and identify the bad American drivers; Mexico can't even tell you who has a drivers license. I don't agree with everything the Teamsters say, but I have to take their side on this one. Calling them racist was a cheap shot, putting it in quotes made it even worse. Bad job TSN.

Riveras: Teamsters and Mexican Truck Drivers

The complaints by Teamsters are nothing more than a front to serve their interests. They seek only to bloc a trade agreement approved by the American people and their representative through the use of straw men arguements and legal harrasment.

New Standard, you did a great job. Keep it up.

Dr. Salvador Rivera, Ph.D Professor of History and Sociology State University of New York

Eric Patton:

Pissing off the Teamsters = doing something right.

I love it.

Brian Dominick: Reply to TJ728

The idea that TNS wants more dangerous trucks is refuted by the article we wrote, if you bother to read it in full. The teamsters are not saying, "Tractor trailers are dangerous, more would compound the problem." Instead, they are saying Mexican trucks are worse. There's simply no empirical evidence of that, and through all of this, they haven't pointed to any. They just assert it, knowing that most media outlets will repeat it without challenge, and that saying it over and over makes it true in readers' minds.

If Mr. LaBotz doesn't "see racism" in the Teamsters' stance, he's surely had ample time to let us know, but instead he said he appreciated our work. So there's that.

I think the Teamsters have been given ample space on our site to respond to all charges. We simply cannot keep calling back and forth to all sources as if it's some kind of debate. Their response was that they're not racist. I think any reader could assume they don't think they're racist, and that they would deny being protectionist.

The identities of Mexican truck drivers will be recorded under the proposed system. Your attempt to spread more disinformation on the matter using this forum is unappreciated.

Michelle Chen: Well, now that you brought it up...

For the record, TNS followed up with the Teamsters after the initial interview. We asked more than once about whether job security was an issue for them. And we asked about whether they were responding to allegations of self-interested protectionism--particularly, through grassroots outreach in the Mexican labor movement. The Teamsters steadfastly repeated their claims that their primary concern was about safety, and when pressed, broadly referred to concerns about "lowering standards" and some official affiliations with Mexico's government-run, non-independent unions. It eventually became clear that the Teamsters were not much interested in elaborating meaningfully on the union's talking points (our follow-ups with Fred McLuckie were eventually passed off to the communications department, since he was apparently too busy to respond).

That's to be expected, given the size and political prominence of their organization. But we continued with our reporting, and by supplementing information from the Teamsters with other insights from current and former rank-and-file advocates within the union, we gathered that the campaign was heavily pushing the safety argument, with an underlying subtext of fear about the effect on US jobs, and that cross-border grassroots activism with Mexican workers was hardly a strategic priority.

Actually, even a cursory glance at the public statements from the Teamsters in this campaign would probably lead one to that conclusion, but as a news organization, we are extra diligent about having facts to back up our "biases"--and that's more than we can say about those who have impugned our integrity in this debate.

tj728: Looks like someone finally took the time to analyze the data

the DOT was feeding you:

When confronted by the Teamsters Union and other public safety groups, such as Public Citizen, the Bush administration and its cronies shout racism and point to inspection data showing that Mexican trucks are just as safe as U.S. carriers. But a closer examination of the data raises serious questions.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's NAFTA Safety Stats Web site, inspections of Mexican trucks within the border zone have increased 212% from 2001 through 2005. However, the actual number of Mexican trucks operating in the border zone increased only 60.6%.

How is this possible? Because the only trucks allowed to drive from Mexico into the border zones are short-haul drayage trucks. These trucks make multiple trips a day across the border, hauling the cargo dropped off by Mexican long haul trucks south of the border to long-haul U.S. trucks in the commercial zones.

It's fairly obvious that the DOT is cooking its stats by inspecting the same trucks over and over again. If a truck passes a safety inspection at 10 a.m., how likely is it to fail by 1 p.m.? Is it any wonder then that U.S. and Canadian trucks taken out of service average around 6% a year, but the rate of Mexican trucks taken out of service average around 1%?

Where the true failures show themselves is in driver stats. For example, the average percentage of all truck drivers taken off the road for not having a commercial drivers license is 3.44%. For American drivers the rate is 3.27%. For Canadian drivers, the rate is 0.85%. For Mexican drivers, the rate is 22.6%.

Safety is not a partisan issue, it is not a race issue, it is a common sense issue. But at every turn, the department, encouraged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bush's big corporate buddies, has done everything it could to obfuscate the Mexican government's and the FMCA's shortcomings.

Their goal, plainly stated, is to make cheap imports cheaper.

Michelle Chen: Numbers games

Yes, someone has "finally" taken the time to analyze the DOT data, aside from the analysts, both government-based and non, and the auto-safety advocates we consulted in our reporting--not to mention the Teamsters themselves. But of course, this doesn't actually have all that much to do with our article, which does not dwell on the safety statistics, for which we hold similar skepticism. TNS does not vouch for the aptitude of border vehicle-safety inspectors, nor do we say trucks of any country are unequivocally safe, just that the available data doesn't affirm the argument that Mexican trucks are mobile disasters. (We also gathered from our reporting that the short-haul trucks, which this comment is focused on, are hardly representative of the long-haul trucks that would be gaining access US highways under the pending program.) But the opposition's argument displays somewhat less consistency.

Not to fixate on the numbers, but it is interesting to me that the opponents of the NAFTA program first complained that trucks coming across the border are not inspected enough, and now they say the trucks are inspected with suspicious frequency. It is far from "apparent" to me, at least, who is cooking the books. Please note that Public Citizen testified recently with the Teamsters before Congress blasting the DOT for conducting too few inspections--as evidence that the department was not up to the job--and complained that the vehicle out-of-service rate of about 21 percent was "disappointing." The data set that suggested a safety threat earlier is now questioned for being too rosy--perhaps because some groups with a stake in the matter are wrestling with how to make the data compare conveniently with the safety record of supposedly superior US trucks. I hope you understand that I'm somewhat reluctant to take any of these conjectures on face value since they seem to change each month.

In any case, it seems like the longer this debate wears on, the more it wraps itself around individual numbers, and the more the Teamsters try to turn away from the core issues explored in our article: the direction of the US labor movement in an era of "free trade," the impact of deals like NAFTA on workers' rights in an international context, the questions of "asymmetry" and how nationalism might exacerbate that. It's sad to see it moving in this direction: a perfect way for an interest group to isolate itself, but not so effective for stirring up meaningful public discourse.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.