By Charlie Morasch
First, Paul Yurkovac noticed truck after truck carting container chassis with broken lights and bad tires around the port.
Even worse, lines of trucks were backed up to wait for repairs to the port-owned equipment, with lines stretched six to seven trucks deep and more than four trucks wide.
Within days of Yurkovac’s first day hauling containers locally around the Ports of Hampton Roads, VA, the then-24-year-old driver knew truckers were fighting an uphill battle.
“I began to notice some things that didn’t seem quite right,” Yurkovac said. “As you dig a little further down the hole, you find out it gets dirtier and dirtier.”
Yurkovac began driving after he ran his own automotive parts store, which offered a starkly different daily work picture from port trucking. Besides concerns about chassis safety, even longtime port owner-operators were frustrated by other work issues.
“In a normal business environment, usually when you labor over something you’re compensated,” Yurkovac said. “When I saw how my ability to make a profit was hindered by all these factors that were beyond my control, I had a big problem with that.”
In early 2008, Yurkovac was among a large group of local and regional port drivers who formed the Owner Operators Coalition of Virginia.
The coalition seeks to minimize the downtime drivers spend waiting for port equipment repairs and to improve efficiency at the ports. Advised by OOIDA, the group has met with port officials and has received support from high-ranking elected officials in the Virginia Senate.
An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 drivers make frequent port visits, and about 7,000 drivers total are registered with the Virginia Ports.
Albeit with their own distinct quirks, the Hampton Roads ports are a case study in U.S. ports, said Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA’s regulatory affairs specialist.
The port has boomed with imports in recent years, before this year’s economic downturn dropped the number of shipping containers. It also has dealt with the global impacts of dramatic changes in shipping routes.
Like other U.S. ports, leadership at Hampton Roads has toyed with the notion of adding environmental programs.
Environmental programs adopted by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and proposed in Oakland and Seattle, could shut out owner-operators or long haulers who don’t often visit specific ports or qualify for taxi-style licenses. Drivers without access could be forced to pay others who have port access, or decide to turn down loads headed to a port.
To address those concerns among others, OOIDA’s Board of Directors recently approved a plan to identify and combat abuses at U.S. ports. The Association will work to ensure that access to port facilities for interstate operators will not be unduly impeded and that port initiatives are lawful and reasonable.
Jim Johnston, OOIDA’s president and CEO, told Yurkovac at the OOIDA Board of Directors meeting in early October that the Coalition will “be seeing support through OOIDA resources.”
An estimated 1,000 members of OOIDA live in the port region.
The Hampton Roads ports have placed an inordinate amount of equipment responsibility on drivers, Rajkovacz said. But the Owner Operators Coalition of Virginia has brought key issues to light with port officials.
“The Owner Operators Coalition of Virginia is an example of how port truckers, working together, with strong local leadership and OOIDA’s help, can improve both their lives and businesses,” Rajkovacz said.
“Results do not happen overnight and the Coalition members understand the importance of having a starting point. OOIDA has always encouraged truckers to ‘take a stand’ in their industry and become part of the solution to problems instead of passive observers to getting screwed.”
OOIDA has resources and experience in addressing business concerns to political leaders and can pass that help on to drivers, Rajkovacz said, if they’ve got good leadership on the ground, as the drivers in Hampton Roads do.
“You’ve got to have good local leadership,” Rajkovacz said. “Clearly, if 1,000 drivers down at, say, the Port of Houston are each going in different directions, that’s not going to work. You need drivers on the ground who are committed to something – and the drivers at Hampton Roads are committed to improving their situation.”
The members of the Owner Operators Coalition of Virginia have their work cut out for them, Yurkovac said, and recent news hasn’t all been positive.
The ports at Hampton Roads – owned by the Virginia Port Authority – include Norfolk International Terminals, Newport News Marine Terminal, Portsmouth Marine Terminal and the Virginia Inland Port.
Recent news stories have shown that executives at the Hampton Roads ports have obtained salary increases between 25 and 50 percent and higher between 2006 and 2008. Yurkovac said the steep raises appall drivers and dock workers who are struggling to keep their jobs during the recent drop in freight.
The ports are owned by the Virginia Port Authority, but are operated by the Virginia International Terminals Inc. That dynamic requires the Coalition to balance conversations with the two groups, all while drivers are working full-time jobs.
“We’re trying to get some type of real change at the port, but there is still a lot of fear in the driving community that if they step out of line to better their situation, they’ll be smacked down,” Yurkovac said. “They need to realize that there are watchdog groups looking out for the interests of drivers. And the motor carriers need to make sure they’re running compliant within FMCSA regs and truth-in-leasing laws.”
And Yurkovac acknowledged that defeatist attitudes are often an obstacle when some drivers call for change.
Rajkovacz agreed, saying that many drivers complain about job situations on the CB or message boards but don’t work to find solutions, which guarantee to “get them nowhere.”
“There are always naysayers for any endeavor,” Rajkovacz said, “yet one year later the Coalition is still here and growing.”
Yurkovac said he’s confident that he’ll be trucking for a long time at the ports and that his efforts to improve working conditions will pay off.
“We have the ability to address these issues before the changes come here while the cost of doing business isn’t so high and they won’t have to fight policies here like they have in southern California,” Yurkovac said. “I feel very strongly we will be successful in our endeavor, though drivers need to be patient.
“You’re talking about imposing change on a system of business that’s been the way it has since it began.” LL