Some port truckers shut down in Oakland to protest fuel prices, surcharges

| 5/9/2008

Some truckers who haul containers in and out of the Port of Oakland shut down this week to protest the fact that their pay has not gone up enough to counter punishing fuel costs. Diesel has been about $4.57 per gallon in California’s Bay area this week.

Protest organizer Ajit Singh Gill has been traveling back and forth from the Port of Oakland and the Lathrop and Stockton rail yards to meet with truckers who have shut down because they can’t afford to fill up their trucks. Some are left with only $54 a day – after paying for fuel – to cover operating expenses and their wages.

“We really don’t consider this a shutdown. It’s just that these drivers can’t afford to drive anymore,” Gill said. “People should understand that they are not making enough money to pay for their trucks, their insurance and everything else they need.”

Gill told Land Line on Thursday, May 8, that some drivers are hauling loads from Stockton to Gilroy for a flat rate of $210 per round-trip, plus a $24 fuel surcharge. With fuel costs running them around $180 per trip, Gill said they are left with just $54 per round trip. Because of traffic and wait times at weigh scales and at docks, he said these truckers are only able to make one round-trip a day.

Some drivers on the West Coast are paying as much as $1,500 each week for fuel, according to one source Land Line spoke to on Thursday, May 8.

“These guys have no other choice but to park their trucks right now,” said the source, who spoke to Land Line on the condition of anonymity. “As the cost of fuel continues to escalate, these guys with older trucks that are only getting about 4 mpg aren’t getting the fuel surcharge they need to keep them going.”

Gill said companies at the Port of Oakland have not held up their end of an agreement they made with port truckers four years ago. That agreement calls for them to pay the truckers 5 percent of their fuel costs above $2 per gallon, he said. He said that while motor carriers’ customers are paying fuel surcharges, that money isn’t being passed along to the drivers buying the fuel.

“This is not a strike that’s getting out of hand. We gave two weeks’ written notice to the companies and brokers that truckers are working for,” Gill said. “Some of the companies responded, but some didn’t respond to the notice at all.”

Port of Oakland Spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur confirmed that as many as 150 truckers were at the port protesting high fuel prices Monday through Wednesday, but said there were only “sporadic demonstrations by truckers” at the port when she spoke to Land Line on Thursday, May 8.

Gill said that decrease in protesters at the port is because truckers began meeting elsewhere after being ticketed for parking their cars at the port.

“The Oakland Police Department is on the scene because the port area is really not a good place for pedestrian access, as you can imagine,” Sandifur said. “The port is not a safe place for people to protest so the police are out there to ensure the safety of the protestors as well as ensure the safety of everyone that’s moving through the port. And then they’re there to make sure that commerce keeps flowing.”

She said she couldn’t estimate what kind of economic disruption the protests have caused at the Port of Oakland this week.

“There’s really no way for us to estimate at this point,” Sandifur said. “We know there’s been some impact, but we really don’t have an idea if it’s a minimal impact or a larger impact.”

Tensions on the rise
One protester described the scene at the Port of Oakland as being under “martial law.” Sandifur said that wasn’t the case at all.

“There isn’t an area set up for protests; this area is set up for train, truck and cargo movement,” she said. “But their right of free speech has been protected, and the Oakland Police are there to see to it. As long as they obey the rules, no one is going to ask them to leave.”

Sandifur said she did see one of the flyers that read, “Subject: Rate adjustment due to high diesel prices,” which was being handed out by truckers at the port.

“Things are definitely difficult for people whose livelihoods depend on the cost of fuel,” she said. “I think what we are looking at is a nationwide issue not a local issue. The elected officials really need to be examining this.”

Oakland Police Department spokesman Roland Holmgren said there have been a few incidents involving protestors at the Port of Oakland, but that overall things have been relatively quiet there.

“There was one arrest for someone who threw a rock and broke a windshield of a truck, and there have been two reports of vandalism,” he said.

Holmgren said he has heard varying statistics on the number of protestors, with as many as 200 protestors reported at one time at the Port of Oakland earlier in the week.

Gill said some companies have come out to negotiate with truckers. He said he was hopeful the protest would be over in the next day or two.

“We are only asking for companies to give us what they agreed to pay us four years ago,” he said. “If you calculate how much it costs to own and operate a truck, there’s no way we can make it on what they are paying us.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer