Forty years and counting

By Jim Johnston, OOIDA President and CEO

This year will mark OOIDA’s 40th anniversary. Thinking about this milestone and where we are today has given me the opportunity to reflect on where it all began. I can honestly say that I never in my wildest dreams imagined my personal and professional life would take such a dramatic turn all those years ago.

In early 1973, I thought I was on top of the world. I was driving a new Freightliner cabover that I had bought about six months earlier. It had a double-wide bunk and a three-and-a-quarter Cat engine. Rates were good with lots of freight to haul, and I had not a care in the world. I was making good money at a job I loved.

For me, the first indication of problems ahead was when I pulled into the truck stop in Stroudsburg, PA. When I looked down and saw the price, I pulled away from the pump without fueling. The outrageous price was 33 cents a gallon, which was up 5 cents from the previous week (imagine that). By the end of the year, if you could get fuel at all, that 33 cents a gallon would have looked really good.

1973 turned out to be an extremely turbulent year, not only for truckers but for the entire country. The oil-producing countries (OPEC) were just beginning to flex their muscles with supply restrictions. In March 1973, President Nixon, who himself was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, imposed price controls on oil, which resulted in further exacerbation of fuel supplies.

On Oct. 6, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel. And by mid-October, in retaliation for U.S. intervention, OPEC imposed an oil embargo against the U.S., creating an almost immediate supply disruption. Opportunistic price gouging in parts of the supply chain caused prices to skyrocket – in some cases overnight.

Rationing was imposed on both gas and diesel fuel, which of course resulted in long lines at stations all over the country. As for truckers, we found ourselves lining up for purchases of sometimes 50 gallons or less at as much as three to four times the price we had been paying just to get a hundred miles down the road and do it all over again.

Frustrations soon reached the boiling point. While everyone else talked about doing something, a guy by the name of J.W. Edwards, who became one of the founding members of OOIDA, pulled his truck across both lanes of traffic on I-80 at Lamar, PA, and refused to move until he was guaranteed an audience with those in power who could address the problems. J.W.’s truck became the rallying point for both car and truck drivers, who plugged the remaining holes and became a crowd that couldn’t be moved.

J.W. got his audience when the governor of Pennsylvania arranged meetings for him in Washington, DC, as a condition of giving up the blockade. To make a long story short, J.W. soon discovered he was in over his head and called for help. I didn’t realize when I answered that call, or for a long time after, that my life was about to change.

We all thought we could simply explain the problems, they would be fixed, and we could get back to work. Wrong! It turned out that all of our solutions were someone else’s problems – and they were organized in powerful lobbying groups and we were not.

We decided that if we were ever going to have our voices heard effectively, we needed to form a strong organization of truckers. That is when OOIDA was born. I still thought I could help put the organization together and get back on the road, which is where I really wanted to be. That is, until I looked around one day and discovered I was the only one left.

It’s been a long, uphill battle with some successes, some failures and a great many good people helping to get us to where we are today. After four decades, our numbers and influence continue to grow at a steady pace.

On Oct. 18-19 of this year we will celebrate our 40th anniversary with a truck show and convention at the Kansas Speedway. I hope to have the opportunity to see all of you there. LL