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.