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Here come the Mexican trucks; prepare for backlash

By Jim Johnston
OOIDA president and CEO

 

The Bush administration wants to outsource perhaps the most quintessential American job –
that of the long-haul trucker. It has been announced that the border will be opened to Mexico-based trucking companies for a one-year pilot program designed to demonstrate that Mexican 18-wheelers will be as safe on U.S. highways as our own big trucks.

Open, cross-border trucking is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement that was supposed to take full effect by 2000. Safety – and now security concerns – have prevented that from happening.

But, President Bush long vowed to fulfill the agreement.

In February this year, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced the Mexican truck pilot program. The U.S. Department of Transportation will oversee the program, which officials say is restricted to top Mexican trucking companies. That all but assures the program will be declared a success in 2008 when “a full and permanent opening of the border is foreseen,” as stated by federal officials.

Groups like OOIDA, Public Citizen, the Teamsters and others have long opposed opening the border to Mexican trucks for safety reasons. Others are appropriately concerned Mexican trucks might be used to smuggle illegal immigrants, drugs and perhaps weapons of mass destruction. These legitimate concerns have been raised, but blatantly ignored.

No matter if it’s tomorrow or the end of the year, with the border fully open, we will see significant Mexican influence along the interstates because the number of those trucks and drivers will grow out of proportion to U.S.-Mexican trade.

Mexican truckers will be hauling domestic U.S. freight – lots of it – draining business from U.S. trucking companies and replacing U.S. drivers with Mexican drivers. Such freight poaching is illegal, but impossible to prevent.

Mexican drivers typically earn less than a third of what American drivers earn. Consequently, Mexican trucking companies will be able to deeply undercut U.S. rates and still earn substantially more than they can south of the border.

Once a Mexican truck has crossed the border, there will be every incentive to stay as long as possible, picking up and delivering freight within the United States. There is no credible enforcement program to prevent it.

We will see U.S. freight illegally hauled by Mexican drivers, threatening American truckers’ livelihoods and business interests.

Virtually all current trucking enforcement is safety related and conducted by state authorities, state police and state DOT inspectors.

The U.S. DOT began anti-poacher training efforts in 33 states, according to DOT spokesman Ian Grossman. But, that program is based on examination of shipping documents during routine safety inspections – an approach with no chance at all of meaningful success given the ease with which any shipping document or credential can be forged.

Mexican truckers won’t even have to do this themselves. Plenty of U.S. freight brokers will happily do it for them.

The situation is exacerbated by the economics of trucking, where a quarter century after deregulation, U.S. drivers are so underpaid that driver recruitment has become an industry in itself. Each year, hundreds of thousands of new, would-be professional drivers hit the road – and a nearly identical number leave it.

During recent boom times, there was more demand for trucks than drivers to meet the need. Shippers are anxious for an alternative, and wherever the lowest bid wins, Mexican truckers will have all the freight they can handle.

That will lead to significant consequences in Mexico as well as here. With domestic trucking capacity drawn to better money in the north, shipping rates within Mexico will rise proportionately, and so will the price of everything trucks deliver.

Ironically, the American Trucking Association supports the Bush initiative. The ATA represents big trucking companies, which perceive profit from an open border and downward pressure on truck driver pay.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association remains in strong opposition to this program. Our members are veteran, professional truckers and owner-operators who realize that large motor carriers will take advantage of cheaper Mexican labor after a full border opening to erase the so-called driver shortage – a shortage those same carriers perpetuate through low rates, poor working conditions and cannibalistic business practices.

Contact your U.S. senators and representatives to let them know you are opposed to this program and they should be, too.

jim_johnston@ooida.com