Cover Story
‘You would be naked and hungry’
Reminding lawmakers that truckers deliver the goods

By Clarissa Kell-Holland
staff writer

 

If it weren’t for truckers, you would be standing here naked and hungry. That’s how one professional driver from New York summed up his comments to lawmakers when he spoke about the diesel crisis in late April.

Fed up with record-high fuel prices, truckers are stepping up to voice their concerns to their lawmakers about how soaring fuel costs and shrinking bottom lines are forcing some small-business truckers out of the industry.

OOIDA member Paul Looman of Gloverville, NY, was invited to testify before the New York State Assembly about diesel prices and how they are hurting his and other truckers’ businesses. He also talked about how fuel costs are having an impact on consumer prices when he was interviewed by media before he addressed the Assembly.

“I just reminded them that without trucks, they would all be standing here today naked and hungry,” he said. “That’s how important truckers are to the economy.”

With diesel selling for as much as $4.50 in early May, truckers in New York continued to pound their lawmakers’ phones. They had started the calling campaign weeks earlier.

The phone assault was spearheaded by OOIDA member Charlie Claburn of Hudson Falls, NY, who was tired of seeing his family and friends lose their small trucking companies as a result of high fuel prices and low freight rates.

Claburn called the office of New York Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, and the snowball started rolling. The call led to a roundtable discussion with Amedore, Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, other lawmakers, truckers and business owners at a truck stop in Fultonville, NY.

Claburn said he hoped his actions would encourage other truckers to pick up the phone and call their lawmakers to enlighten them.

“We think these people in power don’t care, but if we don’t call them and tell them what’s on our minds, how are they supposed to know about our issues?” he said.

“This is a positive step, and this is where things are going to have to start. It took years for stuff to get this messed up, and it’s going to take some time to get things right again. That’s what guys just don’t understand.”

The roundtable meeting was where Looman met up with Claburn. They joined with other truckers in New York to raise awareness about their plight.

“We are trying to get anybody that will listen (to understand) that we need to do something soon about the high price of fuel. It’s killing the owner-operators, it’s killing the farmers, and it’s hurting us all as consumers,” Looman told Land Line.

Survival mode

There are, however, owner-operators who are making it these days, but not without taking action. They have figured out ways to keep their operating costs down to compensate for high fuel bills. Some truckers are reporting that their fuel costs have doubled from a year ago. Other owner-operators are running out of time – and reserves – to stay afloat much longer.

Looman said he would like for independent truckers to receive fuel discounts the way the big motor carriers do. He said he estimates that by the end of this year his income may drop by as much as $22,000 from what he made in 2007 because of fuel prices.

“I see these big companies like Schneider and JB Hunt, and the fuel discounts they get are unbelievable,” Looman said. “I am a one-man, one-truck operation, and I am at a real disadvantage because I don’t get the discounts on fuel like the big trucking companies do.”

On April 30, Amedore issued this statement: “With the cost of diesel fuel approaching $5 a gallon, the time to help our local truckers is now. New York’s working families rely on local truckers to deliver the food, medicine and dry goods that keep our households running.”

Truckers make noise in DC to protest fuel prices

A convoy of truckers from more than two dozen states personally delivered their message of frustration to Washington, DC, on April 28, letting lawmakers know that while many truckers are struggling, others have already gone out of business because of record-high fuel prices.

OOIDA member Michael “JB” Schaffner of Nocona, TX, was one of the organizers of the convoy and rally. He said the reason truckers went to DC was to wake up Congress to the fact that rising fuel costs are negatively affecting truckers, as well as the entire U.S. economy.

Another organizer of the convoy to DC was OOIDA member Mark Kirsch of Myerstown, PA. He communicated with truckers from as many as 27 states who participated in the event. He gave numerous interviews to local and national media as the convoy made its way to RFK Stadium.

 “We have to get the message out to our elected officials that we can’t wait anymore,” Kirsch told Land Line.

Kirsch also organized a convoy to the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg in late March. That event gained the attention of presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, who sat down with Kirsch and other truckers to discuss some of the issues they are facing.

OOIDA member Larry Sidelinger of Damariscotta, ME, who has a small logging truck company, joined in the convoy to DC as well. He convoyed with about 50 trucks from Maine. Sidelinger has been very active in getting legislation introduced in Maine to help truckers. When the Maine truckers reached DC, they met with Sen. Olympia Snowe, D-ME, to discuss the issues that truckers are facing.

Snowe is sponsoring federal legislation, which OOIDA supports. It would ensure that fuel surcharges are paid to the individuals who actually pay for the fuel. (For more information, see Page 21 in this issue.)

Maine state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, rode with a trucker from Maine to Capitol Hill as part of the convoy.

OOIDA life member Don McKinley and his daughter, Megan, traveled from De Mossville, KY. They drove all night to meet up with the convoy that left Harrisburg, PA, for DC.

“We decided to do this to show our support for what these people are doing and to protest high fuel prices,” Don McKinley told Land Line.

McKinley said he has also been calling his lawmakers to let them know how high fuel prices are affecting truckers. He said staff in the office of one of his lawmakers in Kentucky hung up on him before even asking for McKinley’s name and other information.

“You can bet I am going to do everything I can to make sure that lawmaker isn’t re-elected,” he said. “Some seem to forget they are working for the people who vote them into office, and that’s just wrong.”

OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Rod Nofziger was on hand to witness the convoy of truckers as they proceeded through DC.

“Seeing truckers exercise their First Amendment rights is a beautiful thing,” Nofziger told Land Line. “The folks who organized the effort did a great job of putting it together and getting the attention of their elected representatives – despite having to fight through weather, traffic and regulatory red tape.”

Diesel prices spur Indiana truckers to convoy to Capitol

In Indiana, truckers convoyed to their state Capitol in Indianapolis on April 18 to protest high diesel prices and get politicians’ attention.

OOIDA member Dennis Breeden, along with his uncle, Darrell Breeden, of JT Express Trucking in Washington, IN, organized the event in hopes of gaining media and political attention to the fuel crisis affecting small-business truckers.

Darrell Breeden is the company’s safety manager and dispatcher. He told Land Line that they decided to take action after watching so many businesses in their area close their doors because of high fuel prices and low freight rates in the past six months. JT Express is a family-owned company that has 28 trucks.

Breeden said his family has been working with U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-IN, to address some of the issues facing small-business trucking companies like theirs.  

“The congressman sat down and listened to us for a couple hours and was shocked with what we told him about the industry and what we’ve been going through,” Darrell said. “He told us that he was glad to sit down with us and hear what we had to say because he just hadn’t heard the black and white issues that we are facing in the industry.”

Darrell Breeden and his brother, Carl, both were owner-operators for more than 30 years before leaving the road five years ago to help with the operations side of JT Express.

“Our families have been in the business for close to 100 years,” he said. “We’ve just got a long history in trucking and really just feel like it’s time we’ve got to speak out to save this industry.”

Washington  truckers join businesses and consumers in fuel protest

As fuel prices continued to rise this spring, truckers tuned into the fact that high diesel prices not only hurt their businesses, but also affect consumers’ ability to afford the goods truckers deliver. A desire to raise public awareness about that fact motivated truckers in Washington state to take action.

OOIDA members Sherrie and Bob Bond of Chehalis, WA, organized a protest that brought together people from a wide spectrum to protest record-high fuel prices. The Bonds have a log-hauling company with five trucks. They are working with the Washington State Legislature to enact laws to allow log haulers to negotiate directly with timber owners for their hauling fees.

“Right now this is archaic, but what we receive for hauling fees is what the loggers have negotiated with the timber companies. So we have a middleman in there that shouldn’t be there. But because of anti-trust risk we can’t go directly to the timber companies and say this is what we need,” she said.

“Right now we can’t go to the loggers and say here’s my cost and here’s what I need to be able to do this for you in a cost-effective way and in a reliable professional manner without the threat of an anti-trust suit.”

She said this was the third year they went to their legislature with the proposal that would allow log truckers to set their own fees without that threat. The legislative session was only 60 days this year, and she said they were at the Capitol almost every day for those 60 days lobbying for the legislation.

“We got a bill in the hopper – HB3307 – The Log Trucker’s Act,” she said. “It went to the Finance Committee for public hearing and was approved. We got it back in the hands of the House and ran out of time because we were in a short session. We were kind of swimming upstream on this thing, but we wanted to stay in front of the legislature so they didn’t forget what our issue was.”

The Bonds said they have made some strong legislative contacts in their home state, including both the House majority and minority leaders, who are onboard to help them put together a bill this summer to introduce in January 2009.

“We are not asking for a handout; we’re asking for a hand,” she said. “I think that’s the way all independent truckers are. We don’t want to be on the public dole. We just want to be able to support our families and our communities and be able to do our jobs.”

Independent truckers shut down at the Port of Savannah

Across the country from the Bonds, as many as 300 owner-operators who deliver in and out of the Port of Savannah in Georgia parked their rigs on April 3, and stayed parked for three days to protest fuel prices.

OOIDA member Brad Burrell of Rincon, GA, who hauls containers in and out of the ports, participated in the shutdown at the Port of Savannah. Burrell said he decided to participate because he may have to give up trucking and do something else if economic conditions don’t improve soon.

But Burrell said it would be hard for him to leave trucking. He’s been in the business on and off for more than 30 years – and it’s in his blood.

One of the main reasons Burrell parked his rig for three days was to protest the fact that brokers are not passing along 100 percent of fuel surcharges to the owner-operators who are actually buying the fuel.

“My thinking is that if you are not buying the fuel for my truck, why are you touching the surcharge,” he said. “We’ve got to do something. Most of these guys are desperate. I am not one to advocate for a strike, but for many of these guys, this is a last desperate attempt to stay in business. They are on the verge of financial disaster.”

Burrell said he has watched his profits steadily decline since November of 2007 when fuel prices started to drastically increase. He said he did get a 4 percent increase at that time, but the following week freight rates dropped.

“We just want to know where the fuel surcharge is going,” he said.

Frustration knows  no bounds

On the country’s northern border a similar story has been unfolding. Frustrated with soaring diesel fuel prices and low freight rates, OOIDA member Matt Shelley of Rogers City, MI, shut down his truck and started making phone calls to his lawmakers.

Shelley said he was shutting down to support his friends and fellow truckers who haul containers in and out of the Port of Savannah that were participating in a shutdown at the same time.

Although he didn’t actually get through to any of them, Shelley said he’s not giving up on getting his voice heard.

“I can help a little by making another voice heard,” he told Land Line. “I did this for a reason, to stand up for everybody that ain’t big enough to do it. I have very good friends who are losing their houses, losing their trucks. They have nothing else to go to because trucking is all they know how to do.” LL

clarissa_kell-holland@landlinemag.com

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