By Sandi Soendker
Thirty-five years ago, nearly two dozen pissed-off guys gathered at a Holiday Inn in Kansas City, KS.
They were furious with the government’s inability to deal with a fuel crisis driven by the Arab oil embargo that had shut diesel down to a trickle. They were frustrated because of their inability to get relief.
Jim Johnston – president since 1975 – recalls it was in December of 1973 that the early leaders of the Association, in the heat of protest, called to order the first national meeting of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
The first five truckers named on the charter became the officers.
As recorded in the handwritten minutes, they were: J.W. Edwards, Overland Park, KS, president; James Johnston, Blue Springs, MO,
executive vice president; Norm Pickett, Houston, TX, general vice-president; Al Hannah, Las Vegas, NV, treasurer; and Carl Rotenberger, Allentown, PA, secretary.
More than 40 more names were recorded as truckers “who wanted to promote a nationwide organization.”
“We needed to organize,” Johnston recalled. “Fuel was being rationed, truckers were going under, trucking families were in anguish. Everyone else was organized. No one even knew we existed. The obstacles almost seemed insurmountable.”
The first general membership meeting took place in January 1974, where it was reported that the articles of incorporation had been duly filed and the organization was a real-deal, not-for-profit association.
In February ’74, the group met again in Kansas City, KS, for a two-day session. Three of the officers did not think Edwards was working “for the benefit of the Association” and asked him to step down as president.
The minutes reveal that lengthy arguments ensued, and finally a motion was made that the five officers “were to go into a closed room and not to come out without a working solution.”
Johnston describes it as “a time where we were not as diplomatic among ourselves as we are now in resolving issues.”
The next day, meetings resumed and Edwards resigned as president. Seventeen truckers were elected to the OOIDA Board of Directors and they appointed Al Hannah as president. Other officers’ positions remained as originally appointed.
“Those were not the good old days,” says Johnston. “They were days, years, of extreme frustration as we fought our way past our inability to accomplish a measure of relief for truckers. At those first meetings, we vowed that when times got this tough, we would never again be so ineffective, so damned helpless.”
Times have changed, but the cause has not
Today, OOIDA is the largest dues-paying organization of professional truck drivers in North America. The 21-member board of directors meets twice a year at the organization’s headquarters in Grain Valley, MO.
Strategizing the moves and committing the resources of a 160,000-plus member organization of national influence is a complicated task. Board members gather from all over the United States; the government affairs staffers arrive from DC along with litigation counsel. The executive staff and workforce management prepare months ahead for the event.
As Board members convened in April this year at HQ, the price of diesel was averaging more than $4 a gallon. For almost two months, the phone lines at OOIDA had been slammed with calls from truckers asking the Association to take aggressive action. Many wanted OOIDA to call for a shutdown.
“The unstable cost of diesel and miserable absence of transparency in trucking transactions is a combination that has always jeopardized small-business truckers,” Johnston said.
“It’s become an expected part of doing business. When the economy slumps, we get hit hard first and recover last. The knee-jerk reaction is, as it has always been, to strike. I’ve been there.”
Johnston said while there is a great deal of frustration, there are more truckers aware of their ability to work within the system and more truckers who realize that is the best path to success.
“What is different now, is that OOIDA has the resources to be influential where it counts. We have the ability to refine the objectives and determine the most expeditious way of achieving objectives. And we do that knowing we are backed by an army of people willing to contact lawmakers and put pressure where it’s needed.”
At OOIDA’s 2008 board meeting, instead of gathering to complain and get fleeting attention, the Association, he said, “was working with lawmakers on legislation in our U.S. Congress, taking real action that has the potential to yield huge results.”
On April 24, a week after the board meeting, Sen. Olympia Snow, R-ME, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, introduced the first bill that will require that 100 percent of fuel surcharges levied on shippers be passed through to whoever actually pays for the fuel to haul a shipper’s goods, obviously in most cases that’s truckers. During the weeks that followed, a couple more bills were introduced.
Johnston said this legislation has the potential to establish groundbreaking protections for truckers.
“It is impossible to accurately describe how important it is for every single member to get on the phone and call their lawmakers and urge them to support the Association’s initiatives,” said Johnston.
“Small-business truckers comprise more than 90 percent of the trucking industry. For 35 years, we’ve worked to elevate ourselves to this level of influence. Now let’s use it to get a long-term fix in place.” LL
Editor’s note: For more on these bills, see Senior Editor
Jami Jones’ report on Page 21. For daily breaking news, go to www.landlinemag.com.