SPECIAL REPORT: Trucker protest spreads to CA depots, interstates and ports

| 4/30/2004

California's soaring diesel prices spurred a flurry of protests at rail depots earlier this week and along portions of I-5 - by week's end, protesting truckers had abandoned rigs on the northbound lanes east of downtown Los Angeles and planned to meet April 30 at a rally near Long Beach, according to the California Highway Patrol.

CHP Officer Spencer Amons told Land Line I-5 is now open to all traffic - about six trucks were cleared and fewer than 10 truckers were arrested.

Amons also reported a slowdown of traffic on southbound Interstate 110, "but when we arrived, things got back to normal."

He said a group of truckers is heading toward a rally at a park in Wilmington, CA near the Pacific Coast Highway, which is close to Long Beach.

Meanwhile, officials within the shipping industry said the truckers are preparing for some kind of action April 30 at the ports of Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to news accounts.

While it remains unclear how many truckers would participate or what they would do during a protest, fliers are being circulated around the docks urging truckers not to work.

The protest began in Central California April 27 as hundreds of drivers refused to take containers from a railroad depot in Lathrop. The truckers also protested at freight terminals operated by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroads in and near Stockton, CA, The Sacramento Bee said.

The truckers don't blame ports or railroad companies.

They are, however, upset at shipping and trucking companies that rely on the railroads and ports to make a profit. Truckers say the profits they make hauling containers have been reduced because of the higher fuel prices. Truckers are usually paid for every container they haul, but that price has not risen to match the increased fuel costs.

Among the stated demands are a 30 percent increase in the fees paid per container a trucker hauls and a sliding fuel surcharge rate based upon the price of fuel.

Effect on shipping

While the initial protest largely focused on railroad distribution centers in the Central Valley, its ripple effect has caused pinched operations for shippers in other regions and for companies relying on deliveries.

"Basically, all our products come out of Georgia, and they are now stuck in Lathrop," said Dorothy Stein, an assistant at John Towns and Associates, who spoke to the Alameda Times-Star. The company ships erosion control blankets and other soil stabilization and paving products. "People expected deliveries and never received them. It has just been that sort of day."

Jeff Bromley, a Union Pacific Railroad spokesman who also spoke to the newspaper, said the company has seen a 95 percent decline in cargo movement since the protest began at its Lathrop Distribution Center.

The center usually moves about 1,000 containers to and from its center, but on April 27-28, it moved about 250 per day, he said.

The crux of the protest

The truckers have focused on the fuel surcharge, saying carriers are keeping 70 percent of it. The surcharge drivers do receive is based on the national average, not the California price, which is typically the highest in the nation each week.

But truckers also noted their tight financial situation - including low freight rates, and the lack of health and other insurance benefits.

Meanwhile, the truckers taking part in the protest are not alone. OOIDA and Land Line have heard from several other truckers who have parked their rigs due to high fuel prices.

"Virtually every trucker is significantly impacted by the run up in fuel costs and the possibility that costs may keep climbing," Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said. "As of April 30, the national average price of diesel fuel was $1.74 and in California, the average price was $2.26."

See pictures of the shutdown at this website:

by Dick Larsen, senior editor