SPECIAL REPORT: Trucking protest centers on Oakland port

| 5/4/2004

Up to 300 independent truckers continued to protest rising diesel fuel prices at the Port of Oakland May 4, setting up a picket line and slowing freight in and out of the seaport, Port of Oakland officials told Land Line.

"Business is down - the police are on site, but they are keeping a low profile," a port official who didn't want to be identified said.

Port officials and others were reportedly meeting with truckers to find a solution, but the effort would be difficult because, “they’re independent drivers – there’s no spokesperson, and they’re not an organized group,” the official said.

Volatile fuel prices have plagued truckers for more than 30 years. Nationally, diesel fuel prices reached a high – triggering a recession in trucking – in March of 2000. Fuel prices set a new high nationally in 2003. Prices in California are currently at their highest ever. The U.S. Department of Energy May 3 reported average diesel prices in California at $2.274.

"Until we get an answer ... we will be on strike," Irv Dhanda, a trucker from Hayward, CA, who spoke to theContra Costa Times, said. He said drivers have been gathering to discuss formal demands, such as a surcharge to compensate for record-high diesel prices, and are looking into forming a union.

In the meantime, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association 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," Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said.

Shipper worries mount

Meanwhile Scott Dailey, spokesman for the APL Ltd. shipping lines, told the Oakland Tribune, "there's very little truck traffic in the port." Many of the nearly 300 protesters crowded the APL entrance May 3 on Middle Harbor Road.

"We can hold on for a couple more days, but as cargo comes in and gets off-loaded from ships, and we can't put it on a truck, it's going to get very congested," Dailey said. "Our hope is that this will be over in a day or two."

But the protesters have a different idea.

"We are just asking for our fair share, nothing more than that, and we're going to be out here as long as it takes," said eight-year driver Jatinder Singh, speaking to the Tribune. "We're getting paid the same as 10 years ago, but everything else keeps going up. Insurance goes up. Everything goes up. And now gas. We make no money."

The drivers want trucking companies to increase the rates to truckers for hauling containers by at least 30 percent.

Meanwhile, truck drivers protested at four different locations around the port, shouting at passing truckers and holding signs that read "Please stop, let's talk," and "Strike. No free service."

Drivers say they receive $50 to $200 per container hauled, depending on where they are taking the load. While many said they could make $70,000 to $80,000 a year, they spend up to $30,000 a year on their rigs for fuel, insurance, registration, repairs and maintenance. Also, they say they work 15 to 18 hours a day to maximize their earnings, so their hourly wages are roughly $8 to $9.

In the meantime, truckers in Los Angeles, who had also stopped work last Friday, got back on the road Monday. Port officials there called it "business as usual" Monday morning. But in Oakland, work slowed all day.

Teamster involvement

Chuck Mack, secretary treasurer of Local 70 and director of the Teamsters Port Division, presented a resolution to the Oakland Port Authority for equitable fuel price surcharges and a public registry to list the surcharge in an effort to offer relief to the owner-operators.

A registry is necessary so drivers can verify whether the steamship lines and motor carriers are truly passing along the full surcharge. This resolution would lessen the impact of increased fuel costs that owner-operators are currently paying, the Teamsters said.

"These workers are the most exploited group of truck drivers in the country," Mack said. "Things have become so bad that it costs them more money to work than to park the equipment."

--by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick Larsen can be reached at dick_larsen@landlinemag.com.