SPECIAL REPORT: Trucker strikes under way at U.S. ports

| 6/28/2004

Port officials are bracing for a strike by truckers upset about high costs, low wages, inadequate fuel surcharge rates and laws that prohibit them from forming a union, according to news sources.

Action is expected in New Orleans, Houston, Florida and California and port locations on the East and West coasts.

For example, protesting truckers reduced truck traffic in and out of marine terminals at the Port Newark/Elizabeth, NJ, container complex June 28. Officials with trucking companies and terminals said many owner-operators parked their rigs and refused to move containers, while protest organizers distributed leaflets, the Journal of Commercereported.

Tom Adamski, chief executive of Cross Port Transportation of South Kearny, NJ, and chairman of the Bi-State Harbor Carriers Conference of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said that the strike appeared to be "90 percent effective" among owner-operators, and that traffic in and out of terminals was dominated by over-the-road or company-owned vehicles.

According to other news reports, the strike also was affecting shipments at Port Everglades and the Port of Miami.

The Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers issued a statement saying it did not condone the owner-operators' strike, but acknowledged that independent owner-operators deserve fair compensation.

"They have a valid cause, but they're not going about it the right way," said Jeff Bader, association president and president of Golden Carriers.

Bader said that instead of a general shutdown, drivers should direct their complaints to steamship lines that don't adequately compensate trucking companies for fuel and other costs.

In addition to high fuel prices, drivers are fed up with: container chassis that are not made ready or safe for the road before they're hooked up; the practice of "deadheading for free," where truckers are expected to haul empties back and forth from off-port locations and not get paid for it; long waits due to security precautions; and meager surcharge funds.

Meanwhile, OOIDA has consistently used its lobbying muscle to push for meaningful surcharge legislation. The association believes that with today’s high fuel prices, every shipper should be paying a fuel surcharge adequate to cover costs.

"For any middleman to pocket all or part of the surcharge is a fraud on the shipper and truck owner that should be punishable by law," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

OOIDA has asked lawmakers in Washington, DC, to pass fuel surcharge legislation that will provide a permanent fix to this problem. While some legislators may still be hesitant to offer a legislative fix, OOIDA says, the choice to ignore high fuel prices that bankrupt truckers comes with perils for more than just small-business truckers.

"The entire economic recovery for the nation may well be set back or stalled," Spencer said. "Port drivers have been among the most abused in years. Steamship lines and railroads have taken full advantage of their bargaining position to beat these guys down bad. It's not surprising they are angry. And, it's shameful the only way their legitimate concerns will be addressed is when they threaten drastic action."

David Wagner, the chief operating officer of the Port of New Orleans, said he is familiar with the problems.

"The issues are the same all over the country: It has to do with low rates for the drivers and higher fuel prices and the inability to get more money from shipping lines and trucking companies for the amount of work they do," Wagner said.

Owner-operators are forbidden by federal antitrust laws from negotiating together; each must bargain independently with employers.

A Louisiana trucker, Robert Fezekas, said the carriers are taking advantage of the independent operators because of their lack of recourse.

Wagner said it appeared that mostly long-distance drivers would be involved in the latest strike. But Fezekas said many short-distance local truckers could also walk out.

The independent drivers say shipping lines have not increased hauling rates to keep pace with rising insurance, fuel and truck maintenance costs.