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OOIDA’s early days: A big dream, a lot of adrenaline and a ‘few sore knuckles’
After the Christmas of 1973, a trucker named Al Hannah skipped two truck payments, bought a 1973 Mercury and equipped it with a CB. Along with another trucker named Jim Johnston, he hit the road to get something started.

By Sandi Soendker, managing editor
with Reed Black, staff reporter

 

In the 37-year history of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the organization has been steered by only three presidents. In July, two of them got together at OOIDA’s Missouri headquarters for the first time in more than three decades. The conversation quickly turned to a story with details that can only be told by Al Hannah and Jim Johnston.

Hannah and Johnston were both 33 years old when President Nixon came to the aid of Israel in the fall of 1973. The ensuing Arab oil embargo caused widespread fuel shortages and an overnight doubling of fuel prices. The situation put a huge pinch on working truckers like Hannah and Johnston. It wasn’t long before sporadic shutdowns were breaking out all over the nation.

Hannah said the fuel dilemma ignited shutdowns of historic proportion, but it was not the only issue frustrating truckers. Trucking was a tinderbox, and Hannah said the overall inability of the trucking industry to operate efficiently was the real spark.

“Back in those days, you couldn’t drive cross-country with trucks that were legal in the West because of a band of states in the middle with lower size and weight limits,” Hannah explained.

Hannah said he had a 65-foot length on his rig and once he got to Kansas City going east, it became a problem.

“I was dead, you know? I could not go through port of entries or weigh scales because the size and weight limits were lower.”

How changes are made
Hannah, Johnston and the others involved saw the formation of an association for independent truckers as the only way to make changes. They were determined to go to Washington, DC, to represent the “guy behind the wheel” in meetings with policymakers. Some said building a powerful and savvy membership that lawmakers and regulators would see as credible might fall just short of impossible – but Hannah and Johnston didn’t know that. They were confident it was the only way truckers could have an effective impact on shaping the industry.

“Jim and I traveled all over the country putting this trucking association thing together,” Hannah recalls. “We both spent a lot of time and money that we didn’t have. It was quite a deal.”

After the Christmas of 1973, Hannah had skipped two truck payments, bought a 1973 Mercury, equipped it with a CB – and he and Johnston hit the road. In a trip that would end up in the nation’s capital, the two started out in Kansas City, MO, and zigzagged across the country. The pair spent the next month acquainting themselves with hundreds of aggravated and discouraged drivers and meeting up with some trucker groups that were evolving from that frustration.

“We talked straight; we had an agenda,” says Hannah. “We didn’t talk to drivers like lawyers or nuthin’. We talked trucker to trucker, kicking ideas around.”

“We didn’t have cell phones or computers. We dropped a coin into a pay phone, you know? And we talked on the CB. It was tough,” says Hannah.

“We’d tell guys we were gonna be down the road somewhere and when we got there, there’d be 50 guys there to talk to us. Of those guys, most of them had already been shut down three or four weeks and were already out of money – so it was hard to get them to throw in a 10-dollar bill for membership, but they’d donate what they could. We had a lot of quarters and dimes.”

The state of trucking made drivers interested in their message and in their intent to organize a professional association.

“Back then, everyone was pretty vocal about what they wanted and got a few sore knuckles out of it, too,” says Hannah.

“Because of what was going on, every place where there were truckers, they got together and they would pick someone to head the group. And there were probably about 125 different groups started about that time. Some were just groups of guys that got together, and some were established organizations. We figured if all those groups and organizations had the membership they claimed, the population would be greater than that of the entire universe.”

Hannah says it was Johnston’s idea to get these groups together. All of these organizations – plus OOIDA and other splinter groups – began to gather for meetings. And out of those meetings, a coalition was formed.

“There were four or five established groups: Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, the coal haulers’ group, the Mid-West Truckers Association and California Dump Truck Owners Association,” said Johnston. “The last two are still good, viable organizations, by the way.”

Johnston says some of those existing groups spearheaded a coalition that called itself the National Independent Truckers Unity Council. But it was not enough for Hannah and Johnston to be just a part of the coalition. Johnston said the ideals of OOIDA’s young leaders made the group “a bit different” and not always in agreement with the policies of the other groups.

“We were concerned that some seemed more interested in personal gain or glory and prestige than they were in improving conditions for truckers,” Hannah explained. 

Johnston said he and Hannah and the small membership put together what they felt was a realistic agenda, including fuel surcharges. And they had begun looking at major issues like uniform licensing and permitting, uniform size and weight limits.

“There were five of us in the beginning: Jim, me, Carl Rotenberg, Norm Pickett and J.W. Edwards,” Hannah recalls.

Although Edwards, alias the “River Rat,” was the first president, that didn’t last long. Edwards’ success in rallying truckers to shut down was not matched by his executive abilities. He was soon succeeded by Hannah, who served from 1973 to the end of 1974.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association of America was incorporated in Missouri on Jan. 3, 1974.

Fuel embargo: the match in the tinderbox
Early February of that year found the fledgling group riding an adrenaline high triggered by a successful strike by independent truckers that had spread over more than three-fourths of the nation.

Johnston recalls the excitement during the main shutdown. Early on, J.W. Edwards pulled his truck across I-80 in Pennsylvania, and Johnston says this blockade started “the whole thing.”

“The strikes were really working to gain government attention for the issues. Factories were shut down; stores were running out of food.”

“We had a lot of support from the regular citizens and four-wheelers because they were affected by the price of fuel, too,” says Johnston. “Trucks were forming blockades – and cars, instead of trying to bypass, were pulling in to fill any gaps that were left open.”

The National Guard was on duty in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio to keep the peace. Many truckers that were moving were doing so in police-escorted convoys.

 Gov. Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania wanted to meet in private with truckers’ representatives. On Feb. 4, 1974, Shapp met with OOIDA President Al Hannah and Vice President Jim Johnston and went over an 11-point list that truckers considered minimum acceptable demands.

“When we were not on an adrenaline high, we were probably scared to death,” Johnston recalls of the truckers’ trip to DC. “It was during the Nixon administration. Watergate was happening. And I remember when we were at our hotel in Washington, we’d duck as we passed a window.”

In DC, truckers met with W.J. Usery Jr., who was the nation’s top labor mediator. They also met with Sen. Robert Dole. After a daylong meeting with truckers and representatives of various government agencies in Dole’s office, Hannah and Johnston were asked to tell truckers to go back to work, that the problems had been resolved.

Not ready to do that, the truckers went back to their hotel. On television, they listened in amazement to the announcement that an agreement had been reached and trucks were rolling. The film showed trucks rolling down the Ohio Turnpike. 

“Only one problem,” says Johnston. “The background was green grass, and this was winter. Snow was on the ground. The problem was, we had no means of communicating other than the news media – which was obviously being used – so the shutdown began breaking up.”

What happened in Washington, DC, was a valuable experience. Johnston, in fact, describes it as a “huge awakening.”

“When we got up there, we found everyone else we were dealing with – everyone that had a counter interest to truckers – was highly organized, and they could successfully influence the policymakers. And we did not have the ability to do that.”

They went home determined to build an association that could.

The rest is ...
Hannah remembers the first office – a 12-by-40-foot trailer in Grain Valley, MO, with a CB, a copy machine, a phone and a coffee pot. Hannah says he paid $40 a month rent, and it was “a piece of garbage.”

“We had a big problem. None of us wanted to get off the truck and work behind a desk,” says Hannah. His term of service as OOIDA president was not as volatile as Edwards, but it, too, was short-lived.

“I am one of those guys who can inspire, but I am not an office kind of person,” Hannah says. “When I was young, I couldn’t stand to be tied down to a damned desk. I had to be on the move, you know? For one thing, I needed to make a living.”

“The truth is, neither Jim nor I could find anybody to take over the reins for us, someone smart enough to do the job, someone with the fortitude to work for nothing,” says Hannah. “It ended up being Jim – and those early years, I don’t know how he did it.”

Later in 1974, Johnston was elected president and Hannah went back to trucking. He returned to Nevada where he trucked and bought a small truck stop in Lathrop Wells, NV, called the “Waterin’ Hole.” He eventually sold the truck stop and his trucks and went to work for the Nevada Test Site as truck boss. He retired after 17 years as truck boss.

Hannah and his wife, Terry, now live in Las Vegas. Johnston still holds the position of president and CEO of OOIDA. LL

 

sandi_soendker@landlinemag.com

March/April
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