The Great Web

Randy Grider
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If anyone needed a reminder about how enmeshed trucking is in virtually every aspect of the U.S. economy, the recent shutdown of 29 West Coast ports provided such a testament. The dispute between shipping companies and longshoremen left many truckers stranded like a jilted bride left waiting at the altar.

Port workers and shipping lines are battling over technology advancements at the ports. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose members are among the best paid blue-collar workers in the world, wants any jobs created by technological improvements at the ports to be union jobs. The Pacific Maritime Association would like to outsource such jobs. The two parties aren’t any closer now after months of negotiations than they were when the union’s contract expired earlier this year.

Experts estimate that the 10-day closure of ports from California to Washington cost the economy somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion per day.

Many retailers and manufacturers will count their losses in the millions. Some trucking companies will take a hit that registers in thousands. Affected truckers, on the other hand, were losing hundreds of dollars per day. Comparing apples to apples with the other players, drivers – who didn’t have a dog in the fight – were probably the biggest losers.

While the trucking industry as a whole is a strong and vital component in the wheels of commerce, the individual trucker’s livelihood is much more fragile.

“It’s easy to sit back and analyze this,” Nevada owner-operator Jim Shannon told Truckers News as he waited at the Port of Oakland. “We’re familiar with both sides of the argument. But we’re losing money.”

Miles are money, while idle time, for whatever reason, is wages lost. When one factors in the unexpected expense of laying over for days on end, the financial results can be devastating. Especially hard hit are independent truckers who still have truck payments, insurance and other expenses even when their income is shut off.

Some truckers were dealing with the dilemma of having produce and other perishables in their reefers and nowhere to unload it. Some of these truckers caught up in the early days of the port shutdown were looking for other buyers for their loads as late fees for not delivering on time were racking up.

President Bush called some attention to the plight of the truckers when he intervened to temporarily end the dispute by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act.

“The work stoppage is hurting our entire economy,” Bush said. “It is hurting truckers and rail operators who carry goods to other parts of America.”

After Bush’s intervention, federal mediators began working with the two sides for an 80-day “cooling off” period while the ports remain open. However, if no agreement is reached, the ports could close again a few days after Christmas.

Still, some trucking companies and drivers were expecting a sudden upswing in business along the West Coast as shippers and longshoremen try to unravel the mess at the clogged ports. It’s the old feast or famine scenario that truckers are all too familiar with. The problem is too many negative events may sink a driver before he can reap the benefits of the good times.
With the transportation industry so intertwined in the makeup of our economic system, it seems like there has got to be a way to better protect drivers from outside forces that threaten their livelihood. This country’s trucking industry is too important not to take a serious look at its problems and try to find ways to fix them. Greater emphasis should be put on the transportation infrastructure, especially its backbone – the trucker.

The sad reality is that too many good drivers are forced from the profession because they get caught in the tangled economic web that they help weave.

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