by Jason Cisper
Engine brakes hummed in unison as the winding row of trucks eased to a standstill. Some drivers stepped from their rigs to survey the numbers. Passing motorists honked their approval. State police blocked entrance ramps to prevent cars from intermingling with the trail of rigs. Many of them, caught up in the moment, gave passing trucks a thumbs-up.
People had gathered on nearby bridges and at the tops of buildings to watch the rally unfold. News helicopters broadcast the event nationwide via live feeds. The smell of diesel fuel-ironically at the center of the demonstration-hung heavily in the air as the trucks idled for a few minutes. In less than an hour, the drivers would converge upon DC to signal their displeasure with the plight of the owner-operator.
On March 10, OOIDA headquarters sent out a Call to Action bulletin to its members, encouraging them to participate in the March 16 rally. Truckers from across the U.S. and Canada had joined in a cross-country convoy that was scheduled to end in the nation's Capitol. The action was in response to the recent fuel price increases and lack of government action to alleviate the plight of truckers.
As members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) collectively limited their oil output, per-barrel prices have increased at an alarming rate. With shippers largely unwilling or unable to help absorb the increase of fuel prices, owner-operators have been left to shoulder the burden single-handedly. Few federal lawmakers had taken more than a passing interest in the situation. In response, OOIDA called upon its membership to make their voices heard.
"While there has been some movement on certain issues, we feel that many lawmakers are yet to be convinced of the gravity of the current situation facing truckers and the importance of finding immediate solutions," the notice stated. "We encourage all OOIDA members ... to exercise restraint and behave in an orderly and law-abiding fashion. See you in Washington!"
As the trucks rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue East and headed for the rendezvous point, pedestrians on every street corner stopped to watch and wave or pump their fists in the air-signaling their support for the parade of trucks. Air horns cut through the downtown bustle as the convoy turned the corner onto Northwest Madison Drive and parked in single-file lines on both sides of the street.
At the Northernmost point of the Capitol mall, OOIDA had set up camp. Todd Spencer, OOIDA's executive vice president welcomed everyone via loudspeaker, asking truckers to pick up a copy of the OOIDA "Lobbying Package."
Truckers flooded the area, collecting available information to adequately assist them when meeting with their respective local representatives. Included in the packets was a copy of the association's official position, calling for a mandatory fuel surcharge, investigation into the rate structure of the industry and other action to help maintain adequate compensation levels for truckers.
As several elected representatives arrived on the scene, truckers and members of the media jockeyed for position on the grassy area in front of the grandstand. The first lawmaker to speak was Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO). His mention of eliminating aid from the price-fixing OPEC nations drew applause from those in attendance. "If your industry slows down," he added, "the economy slows down."
Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK) also voiced his displeasure with the lack of action. He noted that, for truckers, "it's too expensive to go to work."
"I find it fascinating that when the price goes up at the pump, we have to send our energy secretary to the OPEC nations to say, 'Have mercy on us,' he added. "Friends, it's not fair. It's just not right."
A spirited Mark Foley, the 16th district Rep. from the state of Florida, ignited the crowd with his cry of "Let's bring down fuel prices." His short but passionate address pulled cheers from the audience. Likewise, California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (whose father was a trucker) received a positive response when he said, "If OPEC doesn't support us, we're not going to support them."
Acknowledging that easing the plight of truckers has support from both major parties, Congressman Albert Wynn (D-MD) spoke in support of the owner-operator. "I think we need to look at all the available options and do something," he stressed to the delight of the crowd.
Rounding out the list of lawmakers was Vito Fosella, a New York Congressman who pointed out that, "When a trucker goes to the gas pump, he doesn't negotiate. He's got to pay, and that's wrong."
Jim Johnston, OOIDA president, reaffirmed OOIDA's goals in solving the fuel crisis and increasing pay rates. "The fact is," he stated, "after deregulation, this industry totally lost the ability to regulate itself. The fact is, truckers are paying an additional $200 to $400 a week to fuel up. We need some sort of mechanism to pass along that cost."
Immediately following the presentation, Todd Spencer urged those in attendance to leave the area and go talk to their local representatives. "What evens the playing field in a heartbeat is contact from constituents," he said. "You have a big opportunity to make (your lawmakers) publicly aware of the situation."
Dale Alton, an OOIDA member from Union, OR, followed Spencer's advice and took it upon himself to visit his state lawmaker's office. The staff members, aware of the rally, were prepared to discuss the issues. "It won't do any good if you don't go down there (to their offices) and be heard," he notes.
"I talked to (my representative's) transportation person," Dale recalls. "They knew what I was there for. I let them know that I am a voter, and they were very interested in what I had to say."
Likewise Jim Edwards, a Brookwood, AL, OOIDA member, paid a visit to Congressman Spencer Bachus' office. They discussed the issues for more than an hour. Jim says he was optimistic that the meeting did some good.
"You can tell when someone is just barely giving you the time of day," he says. "But he seemed very interested in what I had to say. He told me about a bill he'd introduced the night before that would cut off aid to OPEC nations. I told him about OOIDA, and he planned to meet with the association and discuss the fuel surcharge information."
OOIDA member John Willey of Albany, IL, was also a part of the convoy into DC. But rather than stop at the rally point, he and his wife Becky went straight to their Congressman's office. Armed with a video camera, they stopped at Lane Evans' office and informed his staff that they hoped they could take film footage back to their local television station with proof that anyone can stop in unannounced and be granted an audience with their lawmaker. They were seen immediately.
"We presented him with OOIDA's (information) while his secretary videotaped the meeting for us," he says. "He wasn't jumping right on the surcharge idea, but he said he was interested in trying to get away from OPEC dependency."
At the end of the day, as the trucks slowly trickled out of the downtown area, several of the day's objectives had already been accomplished.
The plight of the owner-operator was covered by every major news service in the U.S. (and in several foreign countries). President Clinton, in his weekend radio address, specifically noted that the the fuel crisis has put a particular strain on the independent trucker.
Following the rally, Johnston met with officials at the Department of Transportation. The following week saw OOIDA testifying before the Ground Transportation Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, meeting with general counsel to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on fuel surcharge issues, and hashing legislation with Rep. James Oberstar, the committee's ranking minority member.
Johnston, building on the momentum the association has gained in recent weeks, says he will not allow the impact made by the March 16 rally to diminish.
"Owner-operators can't survive much longer," he says. "We want action now."