Protests spread as fuel crisis pushes owner-operators to brink

| 4/4/2008

Across the country this week, some owner-operators decided to shut down for one day, some decided to shut down for three days, and others decided to shut down indefinitely until economic conditions in the trucking industry improve.

Fuel prices near or above the $4 mark in many states and shrinking bottom lines have forced many owner-operators to re-examine whether or not it’s economically feasible for them to keep rolling right now.

Outrage about fuel surcharges not being passed down to the truckers who are actually paying for the fuel is one of the main reasons truckers at the Port of Savannah decided to shut down for a few days.

Port trucker Rachel Elowski of Dublin, GA, said she’s tired of the entire fuel surcharge not getting passed along. She said she isn’t making any money because even when a fuel surcharge increase is announced, freight rates then drop.

Right now, Elowski said she’s only getting around 22 percent of the fuel surcharge.

“What we’ve noticed is that every time our fuel surcharge goes up, they drop the rates so you’re really not making any more money,” she said.

Elowski said approximately 80 percent of the truckers who drive for the same company she works for, which has about 130 trucks, are shut down.

She’s going to try and stay shut down until Tuesday, April 8, but others have a hard choice to make.

“I have heard from other drivers that if they don’t accept dispatches today and tomorrow, they can just pull their placards and go work somewhere else,” Elowski said.

OOIDA member Brad Burrell, who hauls containers in and out of the Port of Savannah in Savannah, GA, told Land Line on Friday, April 4, that he’d been shut down for two days. He said several hundred other port drivers have shut down as well. He said the port was desolate yesterday, and he has heard that truck traffic in and out of the ports is down again today.

“I heard that business was down by about 50 percent at the port yesterday, and I have heard that it’s about the same again today,” he said. “Normally, the port moves between 7,000 and 9,000 boxes a day, but they had only moved about 100 boxes by 11 a.m. yesterday.”

Burrell was interviewed by television station, WTOC-TV at the protest rally on Thursday, April 3. The reporter he talked to said she talked to a port official who admitted the business at the port was slow yesterday.

“The reporter I talked to said that by a port official even admitting that we had an effect was a major accomplishment because before when people have gone on strike out in front of the port gate, the port’s always said, ‘It’s business as usual here,’ ”Burrell said.

Burrell said shutting down has not come without a price. He doesn’t know if he will have a job when he goes back to work on Tuesday, April 7. He hasn’t heard from his company since shutting down.

However, he said he’s doing this because he knows someone has to take a stand.

“The few have always stood up for the many in this country,” he said. “I try to always follow that little voice that tells me to do right. Sometimes I try to ignore it, but this is one of those things that’s more about the principle of it than anything else in my mind.”

Although Burrell said he’s not doing well right now, he said he knows he’s lucky because all of his equipment is paid for.

He said while many owner-operators are trying to stay shut down as long as they can, he said some have been offered higher than normal rates to haul to and from the port and Burrell said they just “feel under the gun that they have to take it.”

“One of my best friends called me before the rally, and said, ‘Man, you are going to hate me because I am getting calls for all these astronomical loads and I have to take them.’ I was disappointed, but I told him, ‘Well, you got to do what you’ve got to do. You know your situation.’ ”

Also on hand at the rally at the Port of Savannah on Thursday, April 3, was OOIDA member Jim Stewart of Eden, GA. Stewart is also an international representative for the port division of the Teamsters Union.

“We’re down here supporting these guys,” he told Land Line on April 3.

One of the major issues down here is the “missing-in-action” fuel surcharges,” Stewart said. “This has become a gigantic issue now, especially with diesel fuel prices like they are. These motor carriers, freight agencies and brokers are using these guys for a windfall profit center – and it’s just wrong.”

Shutdowns around the country
In Georgia, more than 250 truckers participated in a protest convoy on Tuesday, April 1, while on the same day in New Jersey traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike was backed up “as far as the eye could see,” according to one turnpike official.

A convoy of truckers also converged on the state capitol in Harrisburg, PA, on April 1 to protest high fuel prices that have forced some truckers to lose their trucks.

In Carrollton, IL, four OOIDA members, including Terry Evans of Carrollton, IL, and A.J. Wiser, James Roady and Kip Cotter of Roodhouse, IL, pulled their rigs off the road and got their lawn chairs out to protest high fuel prices on Wednesday, April 2. Both Evans and Roady told Land Line they were mildly surprised and darned pleased at the positive reaction from the public. Roady was particularly impressed with the accurate coverage from the Alton Telegraph.

On Friday, in Charleston, WV, more than 60 rigs converged on the state Capitol in protest, The Associated Press reported.

In North Charleston, SC, more than 50 owner-operators have united on Thursday, April 3, to protest high fuel prices. Truckers there plan to shutdown for four days, according to news station WCSC-TV.

At the Port of Tampa, dozens of independent truckers pulled off on Tuesday, April 1, to protest high fuel prices and the fact that their pay hasn’t increased, according to news station WTSP-TV.

Indiana truckers are planning to convoy to the Capitol in Indianapolis on April 18 to protest fuel prices and get politicians’ attention.

“What has me and others so angry here is what gives these people any kind of right whatsoever to touch any of the money that they collect from customers for a fuel surcharge?” Jim Stewart said. “As a consumer, I for one don’t appreciate any of my money not getting passed down to whoever is putting money in the tank.”

Meanwhile, OOIDA issued a national Call to Action focused on the price of diesel. The Association is asking its members to contact lawmakers and convey the extreme impact fuel prices are having on their livelihoods and their families. To read the OOIDA national Call to Action, click here.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer