Local Truckers Brace for Strike

By Beacon Staff

Sam Collett says brace yourself – the big strike is coming.

Across the country, owner-operator and independent truck drivers have been orchestrating isolated strikes and holdouts to protest soaring diesel prices, including a large informal effort recently started by a truck driver in Missouri named Dan Little.

Collett, who has been a truck driver for more than 40 years and participated in four national truckers’ strikes, thinks Little’s movement could grow into a massive strike like the ones he remembers from the past. At the very least, he said, it could open the doors to a bigger one in the near future, as has been the case with past strikes he participated in. Collett recalls a 1974 strike where his trucker friend was shot and killed by a protester.

With diesel prices soaring above $4 per gallon in many states and no signs of prices going down soon, Collett says truckers no longer have a choice.

“We’re like a monkey. We hang in there for so long and eventually your fingers get tired and you just have to let go,” said Collett, who lives in Kalispell. “We’ve been holding on for about two years, and we just can’t do it no more.”

Collett, an independent driver, said he will finish one last job this week and then join the strike if the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) backs it, which the organization hasn’t formally done yet. OOIDA represents more than 160,000 truckers nationwide.

As the primary source of freight transportation in the U.S., many truckers feel the federal government unfairly and heavily taxes diesel while it subsidizes railroads, airplanes and other services.

Ken Gert, of System Transport, Inc., out of Spokane, climbs into his truck after filling up with diesel at the Town Pump off U.S. Highway 2. The pump in the foreground reads $455.93 of diesel for the previous vehicle to fill its tank.

A major strike could be devastating. According to the American Trucking Association’s 2007-2008 reports, trucks transported 69 percent of all U.S. freight in 2006, the highest total ever. Isaac Abell, a truck driver for Lakeside’s Butch Barber Trucking, Inc., points out a favorite bumper sticker: “Without trucks, this country stops.”

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” Abell said.

At the beginning of 2006, the average cost of diesel was about $2.50 per gallon. Since then diesel prices have skyrocketed, prompting widespread conversation of strikes. But only recently have efforts gained traction, particularly with Little’s movement, which began as a grassroots effort and then grew quickly through word of mouth and the Internet.

Abell spends up to $1,200 a day on fuel driving his semi-truck. So when he hears talk of a truckers’ strike on his satellite radio, his eyes light up. As a company man, he can’t strike if his company doesn’t. But he can certainly voice his support for the owner-operator truck drivers who are mobilizing across the nation.

“I think it’s wrong that all these quote, unquote oil tycoons are making all of this money and the rest of the country is suffering,” Abell said.

Asked if owner-operator truck drivers should strike, Abell said: “Absolutely.”

But Collett said it’s not only owner-operators calling for a strike. In fact it’s not just truckers, he said. For the first time in his career, Collett said he has heard that companies are talking about cutting drivers’ wages to compensate for fuel expenses and are, as a result, sympathizing with truckers threatening a strike.

“It’s usually the truckers against their companies, but now it’s the companies and truckers working together,” Collett said.

Jim Johnston, the chief executive officer for OOIDA, has publicly called for truckers to look for alternatives to a strike. He has suggested getting lawmakers and truckers together to discuss surcharges and fuel taxes, instead of a major work stoppage. Johnston sent a letter to President Bush in January pleading for federal action to deal with diesel prices.

Norita Taylor, spokesperson for OOIDA, said her organization can’t advocate a strike but it can back its members.

“We’ve never given the green light because we’re an association and we’d be thrown in federal prison if we called for a strike,” Taylor said. “We don’t tell our members what to do. They tell us what they are doing and we stand behind them, whether they decide to drive up and down the highways earning a living or to stay home.”

Dan Palmer, service manager for Mergenthaler Freight’s Kalispell division, doesn’t advocate striking. He said the isolated holdouts seen across the country aren’t significant enough to put the federal government’s feet to the fire. All they do, he said, is hurt customers.

“I don’t see the argument behind it,” he said. “I don’t see what they’re trying to accomplish. You’d have to get every company to shut down.”

Palmer’s sentiments don’t take away from the fact that diesel is significantly impacting Mergenthaler, the preeminent freight carrier in Northwest Montana. He points to surcharges, for which businesses end up paying. Surcharges are currently around 27 percent, the highest he’s ever seen. He remembers working for Mergenthaler in 1990s when surcharges were less than 10 percent.

Palmer also mentioned a recent incident in Belgrade where somebody siphoned nearly all of the fuel out of a Mergenthaler truck in the middle of the night, a $250 theft and an increasing concern with high fuel costs.

“It’s like gold,” Palmer said of diesel right now.

Collett said he isn’t generally an advocate of strikes because they cause a lot of pain and hardship. He speaks from experience, not only referring to the death of his own friend but to the difficult position it puts the American people in – the consumers who suddenly don’t get the goods they’re used to. But among those people are political authorities with the power to negotiate with truckers.

Each of the four strikes Collett participated in, he said, achieved their desired goals.

“When they go to the store and there’s nothing on the shelves, then it will hit home,” Collett said. “It’s too bad it has to come to that.”

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