It was the fall of 1973. For the first time in history, as a result of the Arab-Israeli war, the supply of oil was used as a weapon in international conflict.
The effects of the Arab oil embargo were both immediate and devastating but nowhere more crippling in impact than on the trucking industry.
Diesel fuel was available but supposedly only from the black market at double the price and in rationed quantities of as little as 30 gallons at a time. You might wait in line for hours only to buy enough fuel to get you to the next fuel stop to start the waiting process all over again.
It was in this atmosphere that first the highway blockades and then full-blown truck shutdowns began to develop.
The most significant of those blockades occurred in Pennsylvania. It grabbed the attention of the national news media when a driver by the name of J.W. Edwards pulled the truck he was driving across both eastbound lanes of I-80 at Lamar, PA. Traffic immediately started backing up for miles with other trucks and even auto drivers plugging the holes to create a solid, impassable blockade.
Highway patrol officers attempting to break up the blockade were greeted by an angry crowd of truckers and other motorists and by demands from Edwards for discussions with a higher authority before he would agree to move his truck. The demand was repeated to each individual of higher authority that showed up with the final authority being Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, who arrived at the nearby truckstop by helicopter.
Gov. Shapp listened to the complaints and determined he was powerless to address the issues raised. He then contacted people in Washington, DC, and arranged for Edwards to meet with representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The word soon spread, and truck blockades began popping up all over the country. DOT was faced with a major developing crisis. Edwards’ initial meeting with DOT did not resolve the issues, of course, but did lead to the scheduling of more extensive meetings for a few days later. Feeling very much in over his head, Edwards contacted a few other truckers he knew and asked them to attend and help with the scheduled meetings.
Among the half dozen drivers who agreed to participate was Jim Johnston, currently the president of OOIDA. By this time, the list of issues had grown beyond fuel prices and availability to include other long-standing problems that truckers faced. These problems included burdensome truck licensing and permitting requirements, the lack of uniform truck size and weight limits and problems between drivers and motor carriers.
The driver participants in those meetings quickly discovered that almost all of the solutions they proposed ended up being a problem for some other interest group. They also found that those other interest groups were organized and carried a great deal more influence than truckdrivers were able to exert. It became obvious that the only course of action to favorably resolve the problems was establishment of an organization of professional truckers strong enough to counter the opposing interest groups.
Throughout November and December of 1973, numerous meetings were held by the founding members of OOIDA, most of whom (including Johnston) were participants in the early and subsequent government meetings. As the fuel crisis continued through the winter of 1973-74, the truckers worked out strategies, goals and mission statements for the new organization.
The association was formally incorporated on Jan. 3, 1974.
Truckers were losing hope. They felt they performed jobs important to the nation, but individually, they were of no consequence. The demonstrations that started as highway blockades turned into shutdowns — sporadic at first, then more concentrated in January and February. The lack of any system for direct communication to drivers, however, made it impossible to hold any unified effort together in the face of government misinformation conveyed through the national news media, and the demonstrations came to an end.
The next four years (’74 through ’77) represented a period of painful learning experiences, restructuring and slow growth for the association. Edwards, the first president, was replaced by Al Hannah in early ’74. Out of approximately 3,000 drivers who paid $10 initiation fees with the expressed intention of being dues-paying members, the actual number of drivers who were dues paying members by 1975 was about 30.
During this period (even though the shutdowns failed), the government had been made aware of the problems and continuing efforts were under way to work out the solutions. Also, many other organizational efforts had started during the shutdowns — some with a legitimate goal of helping truckers and others with less legitimate goals — but all were experiencing the same growth and funding problems as OOIDA.
Participation by OOIDA representatives in meetings and conferences with those other association representatives and the various government agencies was, of necessity, funded primarily through that representative’s personal financial resources.
By 1975, most of the founding members had returned to full-time operation of their businesses. Johnston had been elected president of OOIDA, its third president since its founding a year earlier.
“I was the only one left and too dumb or stubborn to know when to quit,” says Johnston, reflecting on the first time he was elected to the association’s top position.
Because of the need to divide his time between operating his trucking business and the association, one truck had already been lost to repossession and the other was on the edge. One or the other had to go. The choice he made is obvious.
He describes that decision and the months that followed as the most traumatic and depressing period in his life.
Pay for this position was authorized at $1,000 a month, but was seldom available during those first few years. Most incoming funds were devoted to travel to meetings to work on the developing solutions. Remaining funds were spent on communications to members and other truckers in efforts to build membership.
While inadequate financial resources were a constant problem through the ’70s, Johnston held firm to the policy that no outside funding would be sought or accepted. OOIDA would survive or fail on the support of professional truckers. It would owe no obligation or loyalty to anyone else.
“If we could not do the job and earn the support of truckers, then we did not deserve the right to survive as an association,” Johnston said.