By Greg Grisolano, staff writer
“So a ‘River Rat,’ a ‘Slow Poke’ and a ‘Wild Stallion’ walk into a U.S. senator’s office …”
It almost sounds like the setup for a bad punch line, only it’s no joke. Three truckers with the CB handles “River Rat,” “Slow Poke” and “Wild Stallion” really did walk into a U.S. senator’s office (albeit not all at the same time), thinking they might be able to change the world. Or at the very least, improve their lots and the lots of thousands of their freight-haulin’ brethren.
Those men were J.W. Edwards, Jim Johnston and Al Hannah, and that senator’s office belonged to the then-junior senator from Kansas, Robert J. Dole. They would start an organization – the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association – that would come to represent the interests of truckers whose voices had been silenced because of lack of representation.
They had come to DC to meet with policymakers to discuss the fuel shortages and rationing that resulted from the OPEC oil embargo that began in October 1973. Beginning in December 1973, they would make several trips to Washington to advocate for the rights of independent owner-operators.
Over the course of the next year, Johnston and Hannah would make many more trips to the Beltway and back, stopping off at truck stops in between to talk with fellow drivers and appeal to them to join their fledgling organization.
By 1974, shutdowns and trucker strikes were national news. There were widespread reports of violence on the highways, even shootings as result of shutdowns.
Highway and fuel station blockades were sporadically occurring in late 1973, when Johnston accompanied Edwards back to DC.
“I remember we were going into DC, we had two or three cars, and J.W. would get on the CB radio like he was talking to truckers in other parts of the area,” Johnston said. “He’d say ‘You got the trucks set up on the west side’ and he’d name off different highways where the trucks were supposed to be. The first thing Sen. Dole asked when we got to his office was ‘Is there some sort of blockade being set up around DC?’”
‘We figured we were
pretty well whupped at the time’
Edwards got the ball rolling when on Dec. 4, 1973, he pulled his rig across the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80 near Lamar, PA, setting off a blockade that drew national attention to the plight of truckers who were feeling the pinch of high prices and fuel rationing.
The price spikes and rationing were triggered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo of the United States following the Arab Israeli war in October of 1973.
Johnston, “Slow Poke,” said he and the others were excited about that first trip to DC. Little did they know they were about to take their first trip “on the Washington merry-go-round.”
“We were operating under the assumption that you get meetings set up with your elected representatives and the various regulatory agencies,” he said. “You’re gonna go up there, you’re gonna tell them what the problem is, they’re gonna fix it, and we’ll go back to work. It didn’t happen like that.”
Johnston recalled meeting in Sen. Dole’s office with representatives from the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. By the time the meetings got underway, the list of grievances from truckers had grown from just the fuel shortage to a host of other problems, including license plates, hours of service, and lack of uniform speed limits and height and weight restrictions.
According to records from Dole’s archives in Lawrence, KS, the first meeting between truckers and the senator was on Dec. 14, 1973. A press release from Dole’s office at that time specifically mentions meeting with Edwards and “a delegation of independent truck drivers.”
“It is obvious that some are encountering genuine hardships at present,” Dole said in the release. “I told the men that I was interested in seeing that whatever could be done to ease the difficult situation would be done, but I also stressed my strong interest in seeing that talk of work stoppages by truckers would not lead to a situation that could be truly injurious to our economy or inflame emotions to such a high pitch that violence might result.”
In December 1973 alone, the press releases from the Dole archives discuss a series of three meetings between the truckers and legislators between Dec. 14 and Dec. 17. During those meetings, truckers told Dole and other administrators of their concerns about the high prices being charged them for diesel fuel and about their disagreement with the Nixon administration’s proposal to limit the highway speed for trucks to 50 miles per hour, as well as some nine other specific concerns.
Dole had arranged for the group to meet later that afternoon with officials of various departments of government.
Johnston said it was that first go-round of meetings that “galvanized our resolve” to do something.
“One thing we noticed when we were in DC was that almost everybody in the world was organized except us,” he said. “And most of those folks that we had to deal with had entirely different solutions to the problems than we did. A lot of our solutions were their problems, and their solutions were our problems. We decided the only way we were going to get anything done was if we formed an organization. That’s when we got together and put together the nucleus of the association.”
Johnston and Edwards headed back to Kansas City, “stopping as many times as we could along the way, letting guys know what happened.”
“We figured we were pretty well whupped at that time, and we really didn’t have a good course of action,” Johnston said. “We had no contacts, no communication other than what Dole had set up for us in Washington. So we really didn’t have a good avenue to take to address the problems. So we started pushing for a more scheduled, more organized shutdown.”
A ‘Stallion’ rides in
It was at one of those truck stop meetings in Kansas City, KS, where Hannah joined the cause. A long-hauler based in Las Vegas, “Wild Stallion” recalled he pulled into that particular truck stop for some fuel and stumbled on the meeting.
“I hauled coast-to-coast out of the Southwest into the Northeast, mainly produce and meat,” Hannah said. “(The fuel crisis) didn’t bother me until all of a sudden the price of fuel doubled overnight. … It went from like 19 cents here at home to 38 to 40 cents. It was just overnight. All of a sudden, when you’re just getting the same damn price for your freight, and double the fuel, it put the hurt then.”
When OOIDA was initially chartered, Edwards was named the group’s president. But his tenure was short-lived, as both Johnston and Hannah recalled his behavior became increasingly unreliable.
When Edwards was ousted, Hannah took over and he and Johnston joined with other truckers in a series of nationwide shutdowns. Both of Johnston’s trucks were blockading pumps at truck stops in Eastern Jackson County, MO. According to the Dole archives, the senator again met with truckers at the Capitol beginning in early February 1974.
While fuel prices and shortages had been the catalyst for action, Hannah said truckers back then faced a host of other challenges, including height, weight and length issues and speed issues.
“The interstate system was just getting started in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he said. “We didn’t have but three or four interstates and they weren’t even completed. ... So what we were concerned with was interstates, load limits, speed limits. They were all different back then. I’d get my ass in a jam back East because of my weight and my height. We tried to bring all this stuff to a head. At the end of it, we didn’t get all these things accomplished but we got a few of them.”
The Association started out with about 3,000 or so people who had given their names and an initial $10 contribution. Keeping those people as long-term members was another problem.
Johnston admits those early efforts at organizing were “pretty unsophisticated.”
“We were doing a lot of work on the issues, but we spent the whole year of 1974 running back and forth to DC for various meetings,” he said. “It was a really crazy year, ’74. We had meetings with different parts of the government, we had meetings among ourselves and with different organizations, and the only thing we could think of at that time as a way to address the problems was shutdowns.
“The ones that occurred in late ’73 and early ’74 were spontaneous and probably as much because of the fuel shortage as it was the price of fuel. And that really brought everybody together. But the threat of additional shutdowns was really what kept the government’s interest in working with us to address the problems.”
‘Taken for a ride’
On Feb. 5, Dole sponsored legislation through Congress that would allow an ICC rule allowing truckers to pass through higher fuel costs to shippers to take place immediately. The rule change took effect on Feb. 15, and also included allowing a 6 percent surcharge on rates. The measures were taken to appease truckers and bring an end to the nationwide strikes.
But Johnston said those meetings in DC concluded with the truckers feeling like “we had been taken for a ride.”
“The one agency that did take action as a result of those meetings was the IRS,” he said. “The action that they took was investigations of price gouging by different truck stops and truck stops chains. … The IRS did go in and crack down on a lot of the price gouging that was going on. That was really the main thing that happened from those initial meetings.”
Back in Grain Valley, MO, Hannah said the Association rented a trailer and set it on a lot just off of Interstate 70 that became the base of operations. Both he and Johnston got back into their cabs and started trucking again, but they continued their truck stop meetings, encouraging others to join.
In the early days, Johnston recalled OOIDA’s voice was one of hundreds that tried to speak on behalf of the independent trucker. Some groups that tried to unionize and make membership mandatory faced significant challenges from both the powerful Teamsters Union and from motor carriers who didn’t want their drivers to unionize.
“We took a different approach,” Johnston said. “We said we’re going to put together benefit programs; we’re going to consider ourselves a business organization. We’re going to put together benefit programs that make it attractive for people to join voluntarily, rather than try to force them in through organizing companies. That’s pretty much a philosophy that we’ve stuck to ever since the beginning.”
By the end of 1974 though, OOIDA was on its third president. Hannah stepped down to return to his home in the Las Vegas area. Johnston ended up taking the reins.
“After about a year, I had to pull out because I had too much going on (out in Las Vegas),” Hannah said. “At the time, we weren’t started enough to where you could make any money and support anybody. Jim hung in there and was able to keep it going.”
That first year for OOIDA was primarily a time of trying to get organized, and “learning the ropes” as Johnston put it. Membership dwindled from an early peak of about 3,000 all the way down to 35 dues-paying members by the end of 1974. It would take nearly 10 years to get back to 1,000 members.
“Truckers are independent folks who figure they can deal with issues on their own,” Johnston said. “Besides that, we had huge problems with communications. We didn’t have the magazine at that time of course. We put together a little newsletter.
“We tried to communicate that to the people we were trying to get organized. But we didn’t have a whole lot of money to do that either. We were pretty much operating out of our own money that we had earned or saved. And as the number of members dwindled, so did the number of willing volunteers.”
By the end of ’74, Johnston said all the money he was making off the truck was going back into mailings for the Association.
“A few good, loyal members that would come in and pay their dues helped keep us going,” he said. “Every bit of what came in went back into mail. It took us 10 years almost to get over a thousand members. We struggled for a long time. We never borrowed any money from anybody.”
Hannah said he believes one of the biggest accomplishments from that time was just getting a group as independent as truck drivers to have any sort of representative organization at all.
“We were regular people, family guys, no different than people working in an office or factory,” he said. “And we needed some regulations to get our job done right. The shutdowns did show that there was a hell of a lot of us out there and we were tired of it.”
From a dedicated group of 35 members to more than 150,000 members today; from a travel trailer “office” chained to a light pole at an old truck stop to a world-class office and headquarters near that same spot. It’s 40 years later and, just like its members, OOIDA keeps on truckin.’ LL