Some of the first action Akron, Ohio, saw this past January was in front of the local 7-Up dock. As a company truck approached the C.I.T. (Council of Independent Truckers) picket line, a striking truck owner nicknamed Old Ironsides asked a simple question at the rig’s window.
“Don’t you know about the shutdown?” he shouted. “You ain’t supposed to be runnin’.”
“I got to,” the driver answered. “My boss said if I didn’t take it out, I’d get fired. He says I got to be told and I got to be shown.”
At that, Old Ironsides and six other striking truckers kicked the headlights in and busted the glass out of the windshield. For good measure, one of the men used an ice pick to check the air pressure in the steering tires.
“If you don’t want to work,” the driver was told, “show your boss the truck. Tell him we said we’d kill you if you came out again.”
“Thanks,” he said.
The 7-Up driver began a long clumping loop back to the terminal; ten minutes later, he passed the line in his car on the way home for an indefinite vacation. It was a wise decision.
If you make your living driving a diesel truck, getting pushed around is common, getting even is rare. The men in the business will tell you that. If the truckers hadn’t learned that axiom before January, they have now.
A sinking economy, like an anchor on their short hairs, forced the men who own and operate heavy-duty diesel rigs to remember the simple circuitry of their machines: If you turn the key to off, a truck won’t move. Beginning on January 24th, legions of these small businessmen left their cabs and denied the nation their services. By Groundhog Day, February 2nd, the Northeast had empty grocery shelves and America’s industrial spine was cracked in a dozen different places. It was called The Truckers’ Shutdown and it didn’t end until the government threatened to call out the Army. A bargain was struck on February 7th, but the odds are against the agreement lasting long. Its terms give the barest kind of relief from the rising costs of gasoline and the shrinking profit margins that these small businessmen were protesting. The agreement offers four pages of promises, no redress procedures and nothing but the government’s word to guarantee implementation. Just a Band-Aid on an open wound. Better stock up on canned goods, folks; we’re all in for another shutdown before September. When it comes, the next rebellion will surely spring from the same snake pit as the last.
The motor-transport industry is divided by the government between the men who drive and the companies who let them. Hauling goods between states requires a carrier permit from the Interstate Commerce Commission and two years of lawyers’ fees to secure it. Because of high costs and legal complexities, corporations not only own almost 60% of the 18,000-pound long-haul diesel rigs, but they control the entire industry as well.
The rest of the interstate hauling machines are in the hands of anyone who can shift through 12 gears and produce a down payment on a sticker price of $35,000. Listed as independent owner-operators, these individual 18-wheeled businesses lease themselves to certified trucking companies for a percentage of the company’s rate. The higher the carrier’s rate, the lower the owner-operator’s percentage, creating just enough to hold the independent trucker a shimmy over cost and rolling. The owner-operator is useful for the companies to have around: He isn’t paid for time broken down on the roadside or the first three hours he sits at the mill waiting for a load. In return, he saves the carrier a heavy investment in trucks, maintenance and fuel—while keeping the cost of shipping down.
On paper, the owner-operators, like the company drivers, are represented by the Teamsters Union. Their membership seems to have grown from the old Teamster habit of slashing non-Teamster tires at Teamster docks. As it stands, the union has left them with no voice and a bad deal to boot. When contract time rolls around, Teamster rank and file members have complained that sometimes they don’t receive their ballots and thus have no opportunity to accept or reject management’s offer. If the contract is rejected by those members lucky enough to receive their ballots, the union officials will call for a strike vote. Striking requires a 2/3 majority. If a strike is rejected as well, the Teamster national officers consider it an acceptance of the contract, even though as few as 34% of those voting may have approved it. If a strike is demanded, the strike fund is under the personal control of President Frank Fitzsimmons; and Fitzsimmons is known not to fund efforts he didn’t order. Owner-operators complain that it’s like having no union at all.
And it didn’t get any better when the economy bottomed out. The truckers ran into the autumn gas shortage and began spending half their working hours in line, hoping for the 200 gallons it takes to get from Boston to Chicago. The price of a gallon inflated from 31 cents in May 1973, to as high as 70 cents in December, depending on how bad you needed it and if you could get it at all. The newly created Federal Energy Office added a 55-mile-an-hour speed limit and yanked the plug on the independents. To a man pulling a freight box or a Detroit train, topping at 55 means that the total distance he’s paid to cover takes longer to complete, he earns less an hour and has to take swelling diesel costs out of his own pocket. On top of that, his rig consumes more fuel at that slower pace. In the last days of 1973, owner-operators were burning out the front part of their brains and the brake shoes on their trailers getting to East Liverpool, Ohio, just in time to lose $23.47. The nice man from the bank kept calling about the overdue and the wife kept saying he’s in the saddle near Cleveland somewhere and won’t be back for a week and a half. As a result of this new speed limit, revenue losses ran as high as 25%. Independent truckers ran into December a half-step ahead of repossession and working harder than they ever should.
The ranks of owner-operators are full of country boys who got on the road to see the world, live at home, have businesses that handle hard cash and buy Peterbilt semis of their very own. It’s not the money that keeps them humping on the interstate, it’s the people they’ve become along the way.
In a cab, ten feet over the tarmac, settled in 13th gear, one of these shiny six-axled beasts lets a kid from Harlan County, Kentucky, be whomever he wants. Under the dash, he has a Citizens Band radio and he chatters up the road, flying the name he broadcasts under. On the CB, it’s called a “handle.”
“Breaker ten, breaker ten,” the radio begins, “this is Stonewall Jackson. Anybody out there seen that Bucket of Love? Give me a reading, over.”
“Roger, Stonewall,” the kid born Jimmy Dee in Harlan County answers at the static. “This is Iron Mike. I read you. Ain’t heard nothin’ out of that Bucket. You seen Smokey the Pig near Warren anywhere?” Smokey the Pig is the State Highway Patrol.
The haulers began fighting back in an uncoordinated lunge, an inspired and guttural moan from the bottom of the pile. Talk of a shutdown on the 13th and 14th of December spread from truckstop to truckstop, but J.W. “River Rat” Edwards couldn’t wait. On the evening of December 3rd, the 41-year-old company driver was hauling along Interstate 80, the looping asphalt jugular running through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to connect America’s East and West. Outside of LaMar, Pennsylvania, River Rat’s gas gauge hit empty and his truck began to make the small jerks and wrong sounds that mean a dry tank.
What the fuck, he figured, this is as good a time and place as any. His GMC rig rolled to a stop in the slow lane and the Kansas City driver left it in the road. As the waves of traffic broke around Edwards’s obstruction, another truck shut down in the fast lane next door and the interstate began to back up in stacks. The next morning, when the reporters arrived, River Rat was ready and waiting on his front bumper. He was, he explained, the leader of the nationwide truckers’ blockade, and it seemed plausible. As word spread on the CB, identical unplanned honking clots sprung up around Ohio and Indiana. “When River Rat says roll,” Edwards bragged, “they roll.” His next plan, he added, was to move the show to the nation’s capital.
River Rat was quickly summoned to the office of Secretary of Transportation Claude Brinegar, who assured him that everybody would get all the diesel they needed. River Rat was impressed: There he was, old J.W., just 14 feet of carpet from the government and on the network news the same night. After the meeting, Edwards was flown by helicopter to a Coast Guard station with a high-powered CB transmitter. He had, he announced, reached a settlement with Mr. Brinegar. “Roll,” River Rat said.
Nothing happened right away, but after a few days, the drivers who had blocked the interstate learned who River Rat was supposed to be and what the TV said he’d done. Some decided to take his word for it. The rest were dispersed with a little help from Smokey the Pig and the National Guard. In the course of the road clearing, not a few skulls and windshields ended up on the wrong end of a night stick. The December 13th and 14th shutdown happened anyway. Because it takes 72 hours before a city’s food supply must be replaced, the 48-hour shutdown was never taken seriously in Washington. Forty-eight hours off the road only worried a few grocery supervisors and left the public untouched. Officials in the District of Columbia told a few River Rat jokes and issued no comment on the threat of another longer shutdown to come.
In the December actions, owner-operators were stymied by their formless attack. The truckers had no common structure with which to parlay grievances into political victories. To deliver the blow they needed, independent haulers would have to band together and shape themselves. Trying to fashion December’s anger into January’s weapon, truckers began coalescing around two poles: Overdrive magazine, with its power to spread the word, and the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, an eight-year-old network of steel-industry drivers.
Overdrive magazine (“The Price of Truth—$1.50”) and its 39-year-old owner/editor Mike Parkhurst, have been around for a while. The credit belongs to Parkhurst, who was fresh out of a long-distance cab 13 years ago. Propping his shoulder-heavy, paunched body behind a wide blond desk in the magazine’s three-story headquarters on North Cahuenga Avenue in Hollywood, he says, “Overdrive does more for, speaks to more, and speaks for more owner-operators than anybody in the country.” The Voice of the American Trucker, as he calls the magazine, is sold only in truckstops—60,000 a month.
Overdrive‘s switchboard can handle 20 calls at once, all of which light up on the panel by the editor’s desk and in the “Communications Room” down the hall. Overdrive‘s staff accepted 3,500 collect calls from truckers between November and January, 24 hours a day, working in shifts. Parkhurst also printed 30,000 shutdown posters, distributed them through truckstops in 30 states, met with transportation secretary Brinegar, mailed copies of everything to everybody and wrote an article all about it in the February issue.
Titled “Overdrive Action Report,” the text runs a bold-print page and a half. As with all Overdrive copy, details are given down to and including the hour and minute that senators were served with Overdrive shutdown posters. After listing 22 accomplishments of Overdrive during the stoppage, the report closes in a rush: “A total of seven contributions totalling $28.00 was sent to Overdrive. We returned all seven checks to the senders. SUMMARY: Your fight is our fight.”
The same theme is developed earlier in the issue on a two-page spread, topped with a white-on-black streamer: YOUR FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT, with a grainy trucker sketched beside it. In the lower right-hand corner there’s a subscription coupon you can clip out. February’s “Cover Gal” and “Datemaster,” Fay Ferris, is wearing bell-bottom jeans and a short shirt so her belly shows. Facing a 300-series Mack cabover with red and blue racing stripes, Fay twists at the camera’s rising angle, stopping just as the bulge where her butt bunches is even with the right headlight. She looks off the cover without a smile, a brunette keeping silent vigil over U.S. 152.
The meat of the magazine is its center section with all the news plus an expose of the link between the Teamsters’ Pension Fund and organized crime, a report on trucking in England, a dissection of Caterpillar’s new 7155 transmission with 16 semi-automatic forward gears, and an article charging collusion between oil companies and the government, followed by an on-the-spot inspection of the Perlis Truckstop, Interstate 75 at Wenona Exit, Cordele, Georgia.
Back on page 128, the pictures of three truckstop waitresses are captioned with their opinions of truckers. “They are fun, courteous, just a bunch of nice guys,” according to Mary Marble of the Blue Beacon Cafe, Salina, Kansas. “Sometimes,” she adds, “when they have been away from home too long, they start to hassle you a bit, if that’s the right word, but they are really great.”
For someone with a reason to read it, Overdrive is good reading. Since 1961, Overdrive fought and won a judicial battle eliminating a traffic court system that allowed mayors to conduct their own traffic courts in 17 states; attacked the Justice of the Peace system in Iowa for preying on truckers; forced uniforms on the New Mexico port of entry inspectors; helped wipe the South Tucson speed trap off the map; exposed layers of corruption in the Teamsters Union, and received praise from tractor-trailer manufacturers for its criticisms and suggested improvements. The record has bred confidence, pride and a lot of criticism. “That son of a bitch thinks his magazine runs the world” is the way one independent driver put it.
It may not be the world, but Overdrive does administer a 20,000-member association of independent truckers called Overdrive Roadmasters. Membership allows the purchase of one of four types of insurance, a number to call collect for legal help, regular conventions and no elections. Which is what Mike Parkhurst’s critics point out when they’re angry. Parkhurst made it to where he sits without seeking anyone’s approval along the way. Owner-operators, they complain, never had a chance to vote Mike Parkhurst their “voice,” so where’s his claim? They call Parkhurst “Field Marshal.”
Parkhurst is the publisher, but in the most technical sense, the magazine belongs to the federal bankruptcy referee. Parkhurst’s corporation overextended itself with a feature-length movie about interstate haulers, starring the late, great Sonny Liston. Even with this setback, Parkhurst points out, Overdrive has never stopped spending money on efforts to aid those in the same fight. One of the projects Parkhurst brags of helping is the only other obvious rallying point of the truckers’ breakout: the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers. The help amounted to $87,000 in 1967, after F.A.S.H. was born on a picket line in front of Teamster Local 142 in Gary, Indiana.
The local rebellion spread into a wildcat strike that crippled the steel industry for 13 weeks and steel haulers began to organize outside of Teamster control for the first time. Today F.A.S.H. has chapters throughout steel country with two regional offices in Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Gary, miles of steel mills float in a three-day stink. The local F.A.S.H. office centers around Paul Dietsch, a veteran organizer against the Teamsters, who says: “These people [independent drivers] go overseas every 20 years to fight a war for democracy, they come home, go to work for a trucking company that’s under the Teamsters and all of a sudden, they haven’t any rights at all. Their balls shrivel up to the size of peas and they won’t stand up to nothin’ … We decided to change that.”
Bill Hill, F.A.S.H.’s president and main man in the Pittsburgh office, looks like he might be a monument to the change himself. Built like a cross between a honey bear and an overpass, Hill rises six straight feet with no slopes to his sides and no dent to separate the chest from the rest. He is loud enough to be heard and large enough to get people’s attention—all the qualifications needed when he first took office in 1967. Since then, he’s learned lots of lessons, not a few of them taught by the Teamsters. For when the union counterattacked to keep a Teamster foot on steel, the haulers held their ground.
In a succession of incidents, this friction led to flames all over the curbs of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The fiercest fire of all raged in front of Republic Steel’s Youngstown, Ohio, plant in 1969 when F.A.S.H. challenged the Teamsters’ claim to represent steel haulers. When the evening opened, F.A.S.H. had strung a picket line across the gate and the Teamsters gathered their business agents from around the state in the gravel lot at Stony’s Trucking Company. Stony, the owner, had some rigs he wanted through Republic’s gate and organized a convoy to lead them. Four Youngstown police cars took the point, followed by John Angelo, head of the Youngstown Teamster Local, Stony’s station, wagon full of Teamster shotguns and then the trucks. Each rig had wire mesh over its windows and a shotgun in the hump seat. As they approached, rocks were thrown from the F.A.S.H. lines.
With lights flashing, the cops made it up the mill road, along the cyclone fence and through the two-lane gate. Things didn’t look critical until John Angelo blew it. He stopped in the middle of the passage, got out on the ground and told the pickets what a lousy bunch of cocksuckers they were. That started bricks flying, John Angelo ducked, and a window rolled down on Stony’s wagon. Out came a shotgun and two rounds were fired straight into the crowd, a firebomb hit Angelo’s car, and the first truck made a break for it. Dipping around the burning Chevrolet, the Kenworth crossed paths with a second firebomb. The truck skidded inside on five of its 18 wheels, flashing like a 20-ton Zippo. The second driver, scared shitless, killed the engine next to Angelo’s wreck and cut off the Teamster cars behind him. When the firing stopped minutes later, the only corpse was a Teamster bodyguard from Cleveland shot through the eye while standing over a critically wounded steel hauler and beating him with a baseball bat. Nine other Teamsters had to be carried to their waiting cars and when they left, the boogeyman seemed to scatter. The fear of Teamsters began to fade from the industry; and the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers struck again in 1970, winning the right to negotiate a separate steel-haulers contract. Under Bill Hill’s leadership, they have voted down the three most recent contract offers since their agreement expired last July. F.A.S.H. was the obvious partner for Parkhurst to approach after the December smoke cleared.
When the office phone rang in January 1974, Bill Hill was watching the cold outside his window settle into the crackle of pavement and small rocks. Parkhurst was at the other end of the line in L.A., saying the next shutdown was set for January 31st.
“Is that what you decided?” Hill asked.
It was. And Parkhurst wanted all the groups claiming to represent owner-operators present at a meeting on the 23rd.
Parkhurst hung up, called his secretary on the master board and launched a flock of telegrams. The meeting was scheduled for the old Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Overdrive would pick up the tab. It was the last time Hill and Parkhurst ever reached an easy agreement.
Their differences began with the clumps of people who put in an appearance. Nineteen organizations with 60 representatives materialized out of the void, with names starting at Michigan Exempt Haulers and running through the Owner-Operators and Independent Truckers Association of America, Ltd. Memberships were estimated in the thousands. Mike Parkhurst gagged. “Look,” Parkhurst explained later, “I started an association and I know what kind of job it is. And when George Rynn stands up and says his Council of Independent Truckers represents 20,000 drivers and it started a month and a half ago, baby, I know that’s bullshit.”
At the time of the meeting, however, the Overdrive editor just squinted and held his tongue. F.A.S.H. knew his point was well-taken but felt like letting it slide for unity’s sake. When it was all over and he had space to talk, Paul Dietsch used simple reasoning. “We wanted everybody in the tent,” he said. “We didn’t want the ding-a-lings among us out running around Washington and telling everybody they represent 20 million owner-operators. Those fucking politicians would believe them and then where would we have been?”
Parkhurst’s objections only multiplied as he watched the entire morning consumed by what he labeled as “jacking off.” He spoke once to let everyone know they were in a room he’d rented, drinking coffee he’d bought. By then it was afternoon and the meeting had beached itself on the hard business of turning out a list of grievances. People occasionally stood on chairs and a lot had never heard about raising your hand before you speak. The final, trimmed-down 120 words demanded a rollback of both gasoline and diesel to the rate in effect May 15th, 1973, a demand for enough fuel to run their trucks and a public audit of the oil companies. When the statement was read out loud, a few weary cheers rolled over in the thick air and the truck drivers proceeded to the next item on the agenda. There was to be an election to fill a five-seat executive committee. At this point, Mike Parkhurst began to follow an accelerating drift away from the newly named Truckers Unity Committee.
Eyewitnesses remember the exact moment. Parkhurst was calling out the last ballot and adding in his head. As the columns totaled, Parkhurst realized he hadn’t even won a seat and seemed to lose his knees for an instant. In the next business session, Hill suggested the committee be enlarged to include the sixth finisher, Mike Parkhurst, the guy who’d sent them all telegrams. Parkhurst wasn’t all that happy when everyone agreed and was soon to feel worse. At the committee’s first six-man meeting spread around a table in the Mayflower coffee shop, Hill suggested that this smaller group ought to choose a chairman.
Parkhurst was alone in his objections. With the majority agreed and the coffee cups warmed up again, George Lavender, representing the North American Van Lines drivers, suggested Hill for the new post. The table agreed again except for Parkhurst. He had his squint up and was ready to bail out. “Sure, Bill,” he said, “you be chairman.” The editor of Overdrive smiled and didn’t mean any of the words that strained through his teeth. “Right then,” Hill remembers, “I knew we were going to have trouble with this guy.”
Putting that worry aside, the Truckers Unity Committee faced an immediate problem in the person of George Rynn. George drove a Peterbilt leased to the Interstate Truck Service in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. The newly formed Council of Independent Truckers, pieced together from southern Ohio drivers’ clubs, had elected him president. The C.I.T., Rynn maintained throughout the meeting, had no use for this January 31st date. They’d reached their own decision and liked the 24th better. George stood around in the lobby with his hands folded behind his back, Navy-style, and argued until his D-Day was close enough to spit on. Whatever anyone said, C.I.T. would not consider a change of plans. Following their own schedule, the Ohio group would be the uprising’s false start, first beachhead and eventual hammerlock. “I don’t know about anyplace else,” George Rynn predicted, “but Akron stops tomorrow.”
Akron calls itself “The Trucking Capital of the World” and may just be right. The city is a flat clutter of tire factories, freight-yards and smokestacks stretched on either side of an eight-lane road where two inter-states collide. Greater Akron is an eight-hour run from anywhere in the nation’s eight-state industrial belt as well as the Eastern seaboard. Normally the town handles a lot of freight but the shutdown changed all that for a while. By three o’clock in the afternoon of January 27th, only a single International rig, pulling double boxes, could be seen cruising the freeway. It had a shotgun laid on the driver’s side. The Happy Honky spotted the muzzle from the front seat of his Cadillac and switched on the car’s CB.
“Breaker ten,” he rasped. “This is that Happy Honky lookin’ to find a little Arab. Anybody got a reading? Over.”
“Roger to ya, Honky,” the flat box spackled back, “I read. This is that same Little Arab.”
“Hey man,” Honky switched in, “there’s some motherfucker out on 77 with a barrel sticking out of his cab.”
The Happy Honky slowed and kept a distance. To keep them legal, his rifle and ammunition were locked in the trunk. The interstate beyond the hood was covered with white gleam. Behind the Polaroids hung on both sides of his clapboard face, Happy Honky tracked the lone rig until Akron faded from the edges of the freeway. By then, Honky settled for giving the International up as one of those who got through, hit the off-ramp and headed his solid-steel, leather-lined shit furnace home to snatch a few hours sleep before standing night watch at the C.I.T. office.
It was the Happy Honky’s first sleep in two days. The shutdown had kept him jamming but that’s all right. As far as the Honky was concerned, the little man was taking a screwing and somebody had to fight back. “And we ain’t just fightin’ for ourselves,” he added, piping his gear-box voice over the low hiss of power steering. “Our rollback’s for everybody who buys some kinda oil product.”
The Happy Honky is 24 years old with hair swarming on his face; a relative youngster in the business. Originally from Akron, the Navy sent him to San Francisco where he added his beard. Discharged in 1971, he returned to the old neighborhood where he was greeted with whispers of “hippie.” The Happy Honky put money down on a used Fleetstar and graduated to a new Astro within a year. He sold his first rig to a friend, the Little Arab. The two were in the service together and it seemed natural for Little Arab to move out from Massachusetts and join the business.
The Honky and Little Arab are just a pair in the crowd of diesel jockeys who grow hair over their ears and play rock and roll tapes to stay awake on long runs. At first the curls bunched over their necks meant they had to carry their keys and logbooks inside the “Truckdrivers Only” stops. The hardware was safe passage in 1971. These days, they’re taken for granted. No one was surprised when the Happy Honky and his buddy jumped for the middle of the shutdown’s action. The Honky was known to have parked for the December blockades and ran back empty from north of Detroit just to make it home by January 24th. Fiddling with his whiskers, he explains it in flat terms: “When everything was going on at Kent State and them places, you see, I was in the Navy. I never got a chance to participate until now.”
Participation began at the Yellow Freight Depot on the first day of the Akron shutdown. The Happy Honky and Little Arab were on a picket line blocking the loading dock. About noon, two freight boxes ran through the crowd and into the yard. The last truck swerved at the TV cameras and scattered newsmen to either side. When the trucks were ready to leave, the dispatcher walked from the dock out to the fence. He told the C.I.T. he just had two guys from Canton who needed a run home, he didn’t want no hassles. As the TV cameras rushed up and focused on the dispatcher’s veiny nose, the blood rushed to his head and he attacked the lens like a mad bat. The two trucks headed for the freeway. The TV news-wagon spun its wheels and chased the diesels. The reporter wanted a picture of the driver and hung out the window with his finger on the red button. Not that it helped. The elevated tributary was two lanes wide until the turnpike, and the Yellow Freight rigs were running side-by-side at 30 miles an hour. Smokey the Pig was their point man and observer. As traffic coagulated behind the rigs, the State Patrol just throttled down and kept in the lead. The TV car made a move for the wide shoulder and tried to pull even for a shot. The left diesel wiggled its skirts and gave the newsmen a choice between 25 feet straight down and behind the mudflaps. After two more tries, the camera ran out of film and the news team headed for the station. The Happy Honky talked to the cameraman and was told to watch the ten o’clock news. That night, the Honky drove home to suburban Barberton and watched, but the story never ran.
A lot of truckers live in the Honky’s neighborhood, right on Akron’s skirts, with backyards just a hunting rifle’s telescopic sight away from the interstate. Shortly after the 24th, mysterious pings began to be heard around truck cabs. Late at night, armed men were known to be perching on overpasses, laying down occasional sniper fire on passing rigs. To this day, no one knows exactly who was shooting but there’s no doubt about the shots. Four drivers were blasted out of the saddle trying to clear Akron, and the National Guard was finally sent to secure the freeways. Downtown, there wasn’t a cop to be found. At the trucking companies’ request, the bulk of Akron’s black-and-whites were thrown into convoy duty, escorting trucks from terminal to turnpike. The remainder were monitoring the CB, taking names and pulling over any four-wheeled vehicle flying a whip antenna. On the 27th, one flashed the Happy Honky over on his way back from the armed International and toward bed. The officer looked in the window at the transmitter and served the Happy Honky with a John Doe traffic warrant charging “illegal occupation of space on an interstate.” The name “Happy Honky” was scribbled in pencil across the front of the papers.
Police or not, Akron didn’t get any looser. After the Truckers Unity Committee parked on January 31st, moving freight began to evaporate off highways from Florida to Oregon. The motor-transport industry faltered. The Northeast, sensing hands on its food tube, bought out the shelves. A few chains began to airlift beef in order to have something to sell. Layoffs spread until they included a hundred thousand workers. It was indeed a shutdown and each day meant fewer and fewer trucks on the pavement; the ones who did run knew just what they were doing and came prepared. Besides snipers, their only problems were eating and getting fuel. To do that meant truckstops, and truckstops were Shutdown Turf.
On February 1st, the Happy Honky and Little Arab got bored guarding the office and decided to find a truckers’ spot and see what was left to be stopped. In short order, the Honky’s Cadillac bit into the parking apron at the L&K Restaurant on the corner of 224 and Route 8. Things were crowded. From the first day, C.I.T. kept the restaurant manned. With each new truck confronted and shut down in the lot, the trap grew. By February, the L&K had a good-sized permanent crowd. The Happy Honky slid his stringy body behind a cup of coffee and waited. In half an hour a green KW rolled in, planning to eat, and got the same reception as all the others. The Happy Honky joined the crowd that met him on the steps out front and served notice of the shutdown. As soon as the words cleared the Honky’s lips, the unknown driver turned on his heel, mounted his rig and jumped back down with a sawed-off shotgun pointed at the hippie striker’s chest. “There ain’t nobody,” he swore, “gonna keep me from runnin’ for any reason whatsoever.”
Slap Shot hustled for the telephone booth and summoned the cops. “Hey,” he said, “there’s a guy out here at the L&K with a sawed-off shotgun.”
It was a stand-off until the police whined in, seized the weapon, and produced a lecture about how much it was against the law to have a gun in his truck. After that, the patrolman offered an escort down the road. “Shit,” the Happy Honky complained later, “if Smokey’d found me with a gun in my rig and no shutdown goin’ on, I’d end up with 20 years in the goddamn penitentiary.” Half a mile from the L&K, Smokey the Pig pulled over and gave the driver back his gun. The green KW disappeared in a swarm of running lights, last seen between sixth and seventh gears, looking toward a long hungry ride through the gauntlet to Newark.
He was the exception. A lot of rigs made it to truckstops but a lot less left. For most, it was a simple case of peer-group pressure with a strong kicker from the instinct to survive. A Brooklyn produce broker found that much out when he traced his two refrigerateds to a diner near East Gary, Indiana. On the telephone he asked for whomever was in charge. The receiver ended up in the hands of someone calling himself Long John Silver.
“You’ve got a couple of my trucks down there and my driver tells me you won’t let them go,” the broker began.
“Bullshit,” Long John answered. “Anybody can leave whenever they want.”
“I don’t believe you and I’m gonna call the cops and get ’em an escort.”
The phone buzzed a bit while Long John thought it over. “Before you do,” he finally said, “will you answer a couple questions?”
“Where are you gonna escort ’em to?” Long John asked.
“What’re you gonna do when they get to Ohio?”
“Get another escort.”
“Now answer me this, Mr. Broker,” Long John continued, “who’s gonna escort ’em when the strike’s over?”
The broker paused. “Wait a minute,” he concluded, “why don’t you just keep ’em there for a few days until we see if things clear up.”
“Sure thing,” Long John chuckled. With the same laugh, he hung up, checked the coin return and limped back to his cup of coffee.
From the side of the turnpike it looked like the nation’s veins, blocked and vacant. Parts of West Virginia ran out of fuel, the National Guard mobilized all over the Midwest, and Milton Shapp, governor of Pennsylvania, called Bill Hill. It was Groundhog Day, February 2nd, and the shutdown had his state by the nuts. The governor wanted to work something out. When Schapp offered a meeting with federal representatives, the Truckers Unity Committee took him seriously and prepared to make tracks for the District of Columbia. Except for Mike Parkhurst. He was through. On that same Saturday, Hill received Parkhurst’s telegram:
“I will disassociate myself and my organization from such actions or anyone connected with them. Please remember we have more members than all other legitimate groups of owner-operators associations combined. My responsibility as the organizational head is to the vast majority of long-distance owner-operators, not just a few hundred truckers in a limited area. It should be obvious that my responsibilities for the owner-operators of America weigh heavily on me. For this reason, I must come to the inevitable conclusion that any meeting … could appear in the public media as a giant step toward ending the shutdown, when in fact, it is really only a publicity gimmick…. I do not anticipate any meaningful progress for several days…. I suggest you direct your efforts to maintaining the necessary spirit…. If you insist on this publicity gimmick, you do so without my support.”
Bill Hill dropped the two-foot telegram on the office counter. The Truckers Unity Committee would go to Washington anyway. It just seemed like the place to be. The biggest man in town had been their boy once and Richard Nixon was the first name on their list of accounts due. F.A.S.H. member Galen Harris put their grievances simply. “This country has never been in such a mess,” he began. “And Nixon says there ain’t no recession. There’s a depression, that’s what there is. To him there ain’t, maybe. He’s down in Florida catchin’ them big fish on that yacht, havin’ them boogs bring him cold drinks and anything he wants. He don’t give a shit. He’s got a steak this big.” The driver’s arms made a rough shape the size of a spare tire. “And you’re lucky to get a bone. I say Nixon should be made to run with one of these independent haulers for one month and let him know what a man’s goin’ through.”
Shapp’s offer materialized in the Mayflower’s Presidential Room before February 3rd was over. The governor had come up with the right-hand man himself, William Simon, Nixon’s energy czar. Back in Pittsburgh, the fellas called him “Simple”; but that night in the Mayflower, witnesses remember it was “Mr. Simon” with an occasional “sir” tacked onto the end. After all, the man and his glasses did represent the government and he had hurried over to the gathering at 9:30 on Sunday evening in corduroys and loafers as a demonstration of FEO concern. The broad carpeted floor was covered with truckers and press. A few in the back kept yelling while Simon sat next to the bullfrog lawyer who brought him there, William Usery of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and Special Assistant to the President.
Usery smiled a great deal and mostly listened as Simon answered questions. Bill Usery understood that he would get all the talking he could handle during the next week. Usery was the federal representative Governor Shapp had pressured the White House to send. He was no trucking expert but he did know how to bargain and bargain was the order of the day. Simon was explaining that the present crisis grew out of America’s dependence on foreign oil and Usery nodded. Prices, Simon continued, had to rise to meet the added production costs of domestic self-sufficiency. Usery and the FEO chief stayed until 1:30, gathering and dispensing information. When they left, the truckers noticed a twinge along their spines and feared for the possibility of a rollback; Simon said he’d ask the president but the words carried through the Mayflower like the sound of cheap paper headed for the shit-can.
No one’s mind changed on Monday. The government was hardly present except for a few aides, shuffling in and out. These younger men in white shirts and straight ties approached price cuts with a simple logic. “Look,” one said, “if we roll back prices, we can’t compete on the same market with Arab oil. Then our only alternative is to take over the Mideast oil deposits. If our choice is between putting you down and going after the Arabs, what do you think we’re gonna do?” The words were framed in a simple Republican smile, complete with flag in the lapel. The truckers didn’t want to think about it and went on to the mezzanine where their subcommittees were squirreled away trying to shape up a 14-point proposal. The final product clustered around the same audit and rollback the Truckers Unity Committee had brought to town the day before. After dark settled over the subway construction outside the Mayflower’s front door, William Usery returned to pick up the papers. His last words were that he’d be back when he’d had a chance to look them over. Paul Dietsch stood in the lobby and watched him bundle into the government car.
“Right then,” Dietsch remembers, “I knew that shitkicker was up to something. They were just waiting for the public opinion to turn. It looked to me like this was the chance they’d been waiting for. When the pinch got tight and nobody could get gas or food, trucker would be a bad name and Richard Nixon could do something right for once. Namely stomp us and say he’d saved democracy once again.” Dietsch never got a chance to face the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service with his fears. By the time they returned to the table, the trip to Washington had become a new ball game.
That was Tuesday and the owner-operators learned all about how the negotiations were to proceed in a few quick lessons. The government wasn’t coming back to the Mayflower to tell them anything; thanks to a reporter’s tip, the truckers were able to catch the administration’s officer on the live CBS monitors. Framed in the standard White House press conference decoration, William Simon read the government’s proposal: a price freeze on diesel for the rest of the month. The splatter of men around the screen moaned automatically. “Good Christ,” a voice to the back exploded, “we got that already.” He was right. According to the Cost of Living Council’s guidelines, prices are frozen at the pump month by month. The government’s offer was 15 minutes of nothing new except for a back-door admission that the owner-operators did in fact exist. Before the crowd had much of a chance to feel bad about being given what they already had, Attorney General William Saxbe appeared on the tube and began a discussion of all the new things truckers might get if they weren’t careful. Saxbe, it seems, was worried about their lawlessness. If it took him two years, the attorney general swore, he’d get every last violator. He’d been going over the books and found a few laws that might apply. One was a conspiracy act written in the 19th century to combat the Ku Klux Klan and another was the federal amphetamine statutes.
“Saxbe’s speed limit,” someone joked from near the door. It was the morning’s only laugh.
When they returned to the Mayflower, the truckers settled into a closed session to draft their answer. As usual, they had problems. The biggest one, Hill contends, was the truckers themselves. “They don’t really understand the ways of the world,” Hill explains. “They understand the highway but they don’t know nothin’ about the maneuvering and all the political bullshit that goes on.”
Hill’s moment of greatest frustration came that Tuesday afternoon as they attempted to draft a response to the government’s TV blitz. Hill looked up from a discussion and saw a truckdriver’s feet inching through the papers piled along the table. The driver was checking the ceiling for hidden microphones. “Will you get off the fuckin’ table,” Hill growled. He did and in a matter of hours, the Truckers Unity Committee faced the waiting press with a response. It was a flat rejection, handwritten across six pages.
The stalemate drifted well into Wednesday, the 6th of February, without a break. While the negotiations hung in the balance, the UPI wire wound out full of stories from home:
“… A caravan of 68 trucks hauling $3 million worth of beef to market rolled into Illinois after making a short detour as a result of a sniper threat … In Cleveland, a private security agency hired members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to escort gasoline trucks. ‘We’re only using those Angels without felony convictions or those working to get their records expunged,’ said Dick Rizzo, a partner in the security firm. Off-duty policemen also were seen with high-powered rifles in the terminal parking lot and boarding trucks … Nearly 28,000 U.S. auto workers were idled … The Banana Distributing Co. of St. Louis was short 1700 boxes of bananas because trucks had not arrived … Violence claimed a second victim Tuesday when Claudie Nix of St. Stephens, South Carolina, was shot in the chest while driving his tractor-trailer near Harrington, Delaware … In Ohio, Governor John Gilligan ordered 500 more National Guardsmen armed with shotguns to protect trucks in the heavily industrialized northeastern part of the state where the strike had forced the closing of seven plants … State Police said the bridge spanning the Beaver River north of Pittsburgh was lightly damaged by explosions and remained open …”
The mood in Washington was turning from grim to hairy. The Truckers Unity Committee could clearly see the nation’s meat on the griddle.
Secretary of Labor Peter J. Brennan came forward with the only administration comment for February 6th. In light of the positive steps already taken by the federal government to alleviate energy-related problems of all truckers, the former New York Construction Workers’ head charged, “I find this disruption unexcusable.” The comment, according to several observers, pissed Governor Milton Shapp off to no end.
The governor of Pennsylvania waited until eight o’clock that evening and called the White House, asking for General Alexander Haig. Haig, the voice replied, would call back. After 15 minutes, Shapp called again and asked for the president. The president, he was told, was in his office but not taking calls. With no other choice, Shapp left Richard Nixon a message with someone named Mr. Zarb.
“The nation,” it read, “faces a very serious plight. Millions … will be unemployed by the end of this week. Plants will be shut down. There will be shortages of food and many essential products … Mr. President, I wish to see you at once to solve this problem. It can be solved easily and quickly tonight … Milton J. Shapp.”
What made Shapp so sure was the new list the truckers had come up with. In the news, this list was titled “revised demands.”
Not long before midnight, Usery stopped by the new negotiation site in the Statler-Hilton to pick up the demands. The lawyer was gruff and talking through his teeth. “Gentlemen,” he said, shifting his bulk, “I’m going back to put something together. You gave us your proposals. I’ve got to know if you get this, whether you can agree to go out and recommend it for adoption to your people.”
The committee agreed and Usery exited, his aides trailing behind. One of his assistants left with a piece of advice hanging from the side of his mouth. “Jesus Christ,” he grumbled, “you guys ought to get off our backs. The Teamsters won’t let us give you more than we already have.”
The remark came as no surprise to the truckers who heard him mutter. By now they’d grown accustomed to negotiating with people who weren’t in the room.
There is no way to tell who all the outside parties were, but it’s an odds-on bet that one of them was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Brotherhood’s lawyer, Charles Colson, had handpicked Peter J. Brennan for the job at Labor when Colson was still working for the White House. The union, dead set against the shutdown, packs weight at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Brennan’s voice was theirs, loud and clear. Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons wanted no deals made with these “gypsies.” When the owner-operators struck anyway, the Teamsters ordered their members to drive or get fired and began to mount vigilante patrols “to protect our brother Teamsters.”
The most famous raiding party was under steam toward Pittsburgh while the Mayflower negotiations were in progress. It has become asphalt folklore in southern Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania and is described over and over under signs flashing EAT along the road.
The target of the task force is said to have been the Pittsburgh F.A.S.H. office, perched on one of the crusty avenues chiseling north from the Monongahela. Across the street, there’s a tavern and a vacant lot, littered with concrete chunks, dead beer bottles and a street light just bright enough to skid white tracks on the wet asphalt. When the caravan turned the corner, the building was dark and empty. The neighborhood bartender says he recognized Teamsters in the lead. After knocking at the street door, they charged up the stairs and beat in the doors to the meeting hall and the office. The platoon left a brace of lit flares on the third floor and split with the burglar alarm rattling through the building. This was just the first stop. Next in line was Akron … or so Akron thought.
The Happy Honky was called at his Barberton home and told there might be trouble. In an hour, he reported to the C.I.T. office, armed and dangerous. Word had come, he was told, of a convoy of enforcers heading their way from Pittsburgh. Drivers were posted with CBs at each end of Hudson Run Road and the office posse waited, making the traditional pre-battle small talk. The lot next to C.I.T.’s wood-frame house was covered by spotlights and two more cars of waiting men and rifles. Nine armed drivers and one reporter kept watch in the office. The phone rang and George Rynn answered. Slamming the receiver down, George turned to the reporter.
“Gentleman of the press,” Rynn said, “have you had your questions answered?”
The reporter’s voice ground a little in his throat before he could be heard clearly. “I guess so” is what it sounded like to the Little Arab.
“Well then,” George Rynn warned, “you better get your asses out of here. They’re coming.”
“They” turned out to be a car full of men with a “foreign” license spotted by the C.I.T. scouts. Two guards jumped out from the dark roadside and aimed a shotgun at the driver’s chest. When the office force arrived, the car’s occupants were piling out and being braced on the hood.
“Careful,” one said, “be easy with that camera.” The car with New York tags turned out to be carrying a television news crew. They arranged to return the next day for an interview and went off in quick chugs to find a Holiday Inn.
That was the only action seen on Hudson Run Road Wednesday night. The union marauders reached Streetsboro on the way west in five cars and went no further. Two of their engines were burned up with .357 Magnum rounds fired by unknown assailants from an ambush post inside the city limits. The rest of the caravan turned back. The C.I.T. office whooped and made loud noises when they heard.
Back in Washington, no one was laughing. The wait for Usery marched through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. At 3:45 AM, February 7th, Usery returned, wearing a hat and bringing two undersecretaries for Labor and Transportation in tow.
According to witnesses, he began: “Gentlemen, I’m gonna tell ya. I’ve been over this son of a bitch from head to toe and what I have in this envelope is all I can give you. Do you understand that? There’s no offer after this one.”
Eyes in the room riveted on the envelope.
“And furthermore,” Usery continued, “if you can’t take this, you’d best pack your bags and go home. The government’ll have to move this fucking freight. You’ve pushed the government as far as you can push it. If you want, we’ll bring out the Air Force or the Army to move freight or whatever we have to do, we’re gonna have to provide our people with necessities.”
One of the committee members had a question. “If we take the thing you got in your hand, is the government gonna sign it?”
Usery’s response was short and to the point. “Our position is clear,” he said. “And gentlemen, that’s how it’s gonna be. I’m not gonna sign any contract with you and you’re not dealing with any goddamn trucking company either. You’re dealing with the United States government and you’re not gonna put any gun to our head. You’ve got an hour to think it over before we leave.” With that, the thick man from the Federal Negotiation and Conciliation Service led a government wave out of the room and into their waiting quarters. The last of the group to disengage were the aides, who left only after drop