SPECIAL REPORT: Effort at nation’s ports to center on adequate surcharge

| 6/25/2004

With diesel prices at an all-time high compared to last year, port haulers on the East and West coasts and in Houston and New Orleans are calling for a work stoppage June 28 through July 4 to get higher fuel surcharges out of shippers, news sources tell Land Line.

In addition to the surcharges, the drivers in recent months have insisted on better working conditions at the ports. This most recent call for action stems from protests that began in early May in Los Angeles, and then spread to ports in Oakland, Virginia and Houston.

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 officials say, 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," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA. "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."

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," Spencer said.

Meanwhile, during a June 17 event in Washington designed to highlight chassis safety, Teamster members were asked if there would be a port strike this summer and if the Teamsters were behind it.

Teamster President James P. Hoffa said the union has been talking to independent truckers but that they were not part of the strike. However, he added that the call for a strike "shows the frustration of individual truckers [who have been] abused by their employers," The Journal of Commerce reported.

Spencer pointed out that while the teamsters are following the issue, container haulers like every other owner-operator are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to collectively acting to improve their own work conditions.

"They're not employees who can take advantage of Labor Relations Board protection," Spencer said. "If they choose to jointly work together as small businesses, they would be in violation of anti-trust laws. There is no easy solution, however, remedies need to be found. Its time for steamship lines, the railroads and motor carriers who contract with those (owner operators) to find some solutions."

- by Dick Larsen, senior editor

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