Breaking Free

Todd Dills | September 01, 2011

Independent Truckers Association state chapter heads Buzz Flury (left) and Wayne Norman protest high taxes on the steps of Minnesota’s Capitol. The photo ran in Overdrive’s July 1979 issue, which reported on trucker strikes in June.

The owner-operator of yesteryear struggled to prosper amid a complex web of Teamster pressures and over-regulation. Shutdowns and other conflicts lined the highway that led to today’s climate in which the self-employed contractor is integral to the industry and able to operate with much greater independence. From fighting for enhanced freedom to haul in its early days to stressing smart business practices later, Overdrive has championed the owner-operator’s concerns.

1950s and ’60s: Fast track to a golden age

When Overdrive launched in 1961, trucking was dominated by the Teamsters union. Even in the unregulated area, where owner-operators and small fleets had hauled commodities deemed exempt from price regulation since the industry’s infancy in the 1930s, union organizing pressure was exerted. Overdrive founder Mike Parkhurst is said to have been driven to launch the magazine in part by a personal affront chronicled in historian Shane Hamilton’s 2008 book “Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy.”

Then owner-operator Parkhurst was at a receiver in Mansfield, Ohio, when “a Teamster organizer informed him that he would have to pay union dues to unload his produce,” Hamilton wrote. Along with the complicated regulatory structure of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Teamsters, Parkhurst believed, “had ‘strangled the healthy growth of the free enterprise system.’”

The options for owner-operators wishing to haul regulated freight prior to the mid-1950s were limited to finding one of the relatively few regulated carriers who leased owned and operated equipment. Most operators of the time carved a niche in produce markets.

No motor carrier authority was necessary, thanks to agricultural interests securing an exemption from price and lane regulation in the first Motor Carrier Act in 1935, which directed the ICC to regulate the movement of any non-exempt freight. As a result, “a lot of your early owner-operators – especially in produce – come from farms,” says Brian Kimball of the Kimball Transportation brokerage (whose family is pictured). “They’re hard workers. They have a knowledge of the machinery – they could repair their own equipment.”

Kimball’s father, Ed, hauled produce with his five sons in Ed Kimball & Sons Trucking. Before that he leased to different produce-trucking outfits in Florida and, by the late 1950s, typically hauled refrigerated commodities back under trip-lease arrangements. Enabled by legislation enacted in 1957, trip-leasing (running under a regulated carrier’s authority for a single trip agreement) expanded options for owner-operators. Deadhead miles were reduced as obtaining regulated backhauls became more common.

Through the 1960s and into the ’70s, says consultant Jay Thompson, in spite of the limitations to entry in the regulated market, a small-town Indiana boy could buy a truck and “make a decent living” just trip-leasing with carriers. Thompson and his brothers did just that.

After repeated scandals among Teamsters leadership under Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960s disillusioned many drivers – and more carriers began to view independent owner-operators more favorably – the average income of the self-employed driver rose above the average wage earnings of employee drivers for the first time nationally.

The promise of business ownership and added earning potential, paired with the independence of the road, attracted drivers to ownership. Yet, as Hamilton puts it in his book, truck owners’ “dream of economic independence…in 1960s trucking was based only tenuously in reality.” Trip-leasing required a constantly shifting carrier identity (complete with trucking-company signs duct-taped to operators’ rigs’ doors, depending on the load).

The exempt trucking market was “the most cutthroat business there ever was,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Brokers stiffing truckers was routine.” With lax ICC regulations governing carrier leases with owner-operators, many of those who leased owner-operators prior to the late 1970s had the upper hand, he says.

The 1970s: The road to deregulation

As owner-operators increased in numbers, so did their recognition within the industry. Parkhurst in the 1960s launched a national trade group, the Independent Truckers Association, and later the Roadmasters.

Avoca, N.Y.-based owner-operator David A. Margeson, who hauled exempt potatoes, was a Roadmasters member. He recalls that the organization put the owner-operator “on Main Street. Up to that time there’d been no recognition of owner-operators.”

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