By Jim Johnston
OOIDA President and CEO
Turbulent times and fluctuating economic conditions are nothing new to the trucking industry. Usually these cycles last only a few months to a year before things shake out and begin returning to normal. Traditionally, the trucking industry is the first to feel the pain of an economic downturn and also in the forefront of the following economic recovery.
The current situation, however, is totally unprecedented and beyond a doubt more severe than anything I have seen in the 45 years I have been involved in the industry. While truckers were hit first and most severely by astronomic increases in fuel costs, the entire world is now feeling the impact of the recent economic meltdown. Few experts seem willing to hazard even a guess as to how far down it will go or when a recovery will begin to take shape.
I’m sure none of this is news to any of you with all of the media broadcasts filled with the latest plant cutbacks, closings, layoffs and company bankruptcies. Closer to home, it’s obvious that for many in the industry, dropping freight rates and the diminishing volume of available loads in most segments are stretching survival skills to the limit.
In case there is any doubt, I can assure you that the Association is not immune from this economic downturn. When our members are hurting, we very definitely feel the pain.
Knowing how most of you are struggling right now to make ends meet, I hesitate to talk about the difficulties we face in running the Association and building its effectiveness at a time when strong representation is so important. But the fact is you all have just as much, if not more, of a stake in that outcome as we do.
What we have experienced over the past two years is a substantial drop-off in the number of new members joining, an increase in the number of members dropping out, and a significant drop-off of participation in Association member benefit programs – particularly those programs such as insurance that help to subsidize the cost of the representation we are able to provide.
Fortunately, we paid attention to the early indications that began appearing and were able to begin the belt tightening early on. We accomplished this by holding down compensation and hiring and were able to reduce staffing in non-essential areas through normal attrition.
I am totally confident that the steps we have taken will continue to ensure the stability of the Association. The problem is this is a time when stability is not enough. With a new administration in power in Washington, new leadership at DOT and all other federal agencies, and with many new members of Congress, it is more important than ever that we have the resources available to inform and educate these folks on the views and concerns of professional truckers. There simply is no one else capable of or willing to provide that representation.
Some of the issues currently pending, as well as new proposals that we are certain will be added, could have an enormous impact on truckers far into the future if wrongly decided. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), for example, has proposed what they refer to as “Trucking’s Environmental Initiatives.”
The centerpiece of this initiative and its primary goal is an increase in truck size and weight limits (97,000 pounds and the allowance of double and triple trailers nationwide). To further prove how concerned they are about safety and the environment, they are also asking for enactment of a “national 65 mph speed limit and to govern truck speeds at 65 mph or slower to reduce fuel consumption.” While ATA is certainly first in line at the trough with their pig cloaked in environmental concerns, there will undoubtedly be others with agendas detrimental to the interests of truckers who will try to use the same strategy before Congress and the new administration.
While we have been able so far to hold back access of trucks from Mexico to U.S. highways, that issue is still unresolved and will likely continue to be a threat to the livelihood of U.S. truckers. Also, electronic onboard recorders and hours-of-service regulations will likely be getting further action either from DOT or through Congress this year.
Congressional and regulatory action is needed to address the growing problem of dishonest truck brokers and the economic harm they cause to the industry, particularly to small-business truckers. We have several initiatives on the table, including higher broker bond requirements and increased regulatory enforcement of brokers. While we have already received favorable response to these initiatives from some key members of Congress, passage will require aggressive, sustained efforts on our part, along with the strong support of our members.
A staff member recently relayed an example of a member who called in to cancel his membership, stating he could not afford the cost of his dues. After spending some time with him on the phone going through some of the benefit programs available to him as a member, he learned that he could save many times the cost of his dues through savings on products and services he was already buying elsewhere. He also learned that income generated from those programs provides a substantial portion of the funding for the representation the Association provides and is the primary reason we can hold the cost of membership to such a low amount.
The bottom line is we need your help and support now more than ever to provide the representation that is desperately needed. Enormous changes are likely to take place over the next couple of years. Whether those changes will have a positive or negative impact on the future of all professional truckers will depend to a great extent on how effective all of us can be in getting your views heard to influence those changes.
Common sense should dictate that it’s not really a matter of whether you can afford to support your association. If you care about the future of your industry, can you really afford not to? LL