OSHAWA, Ont. - Between blockades, convoys, closed-door bargaining sessions and Queen's Park press conferences throughout October, it was as though the clock had been turned back eight months to the la...
NO GO: Members of the National Truckers Association blockade a Ryder grocery distribution centre in Whitby, Ont. (Photo by John G. Smith)
OSHAWA, Ont. – Between blockades, convoys, closed-door bargaining sessions and Queen’s Park press conferences throughout October, it was as though the clock had been turned back eight months to the last time soaring fuel prices drove owner/operators to brink of bankruptcy.
Dozens of members of the Oshawa-based National Truckers Association protested in and around Toronto, the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association’s aggregate haulers blocked refineries in the Ottawa area, and the Northern Ontario Truckers Association launched protests around Sudbury and Sault Ste-Marie.
For all the noise, however, there was still no immediate relief from high fuel prices at hand as the month drew to a close. In fact, the best the truckers could wrestle from carriers and shippers was essentially an agreement to keep working on the problem.
The latest fuel “crisis” actually started in the closing weeks of September, when the price of a litre of diesel jumped as high as 77 cents at some Ontario pumps. That prompted the National Truckers Association, a group claiming about 1,800 members, to threaten a truckers’ strike – or worse – if the provincial government didn’t come forward with some relief.
The NTA was originally asking for a surcharge equivalent to 12.6 per cent of gross revenues.
Ontario Economic Development Minister Al Palladini, who served as transport minister when runaway wheels were making the news, offered to mediate talks between the truckers and representatives from the carriers and shippers, even threatening to mandate fuel surcharges if an agreement could not be reached. Palladini was full of promises then. “We are in the process of setting up the working group, bringing various parties to the table: government, industry, shippers, carriers and other trucking industry stakeholders,” Palladini announced to the press on Sept. 25. “There is an opportunity for us to really, truly make things better for the owner/operator. All the parties involved must be there, and they have to be committed because they want to be there.”
A few days later, Palladini named Brock A. Smith as the independent chair of the Trucking Industry Working Group. A public affairs advisor with a Toronto law firm, Smith had served as a deputy minister under three successive Ontario governments before retiring in 1993 after 25 years in public life.
Saying the government would “lead by example,” Palladini announced on Sept. 29 that diesel-fuel surcharges, retroactive to Sept. 1, would be incorporated into the ministry’s own transportation contracts.
On the surface, the situation seemed to be under control. But behind closed doors at Queen’s Park, the talks were actually unraveling with every passing day.
With the talks dragging on and fuel holding steady at just under 72 cents a litre, tempers flared on Oct. 5. Representatives from several truckers’ groups stormed out en masse, claiming that other groups at the table had no interest in giving independent truckers the help they need. Wide disagreements existed on everything from the size of fuel surcharges to the base rates to which surcharges should be added and the mileage on which such calculations should be made. The truckers snapped after Ontario Trucking Association vice-president Barrie Montague suggested that independent drivers might be better off selling their trucks and becoming company drivers.
“They (carriers and shippers) don’t want to work on the immediate solutions, and that’s where the problem lies. They’re just looking long term,” said Dwayne Mosley of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, a representative from one of the groups abandoned the talks. “A contract that we sign down the road isn’t going to do any good now.”
Responding at the time on behalf of the carrier community, Montague said, “We want to try to get their agreement on some kind of fuel surcharge formula, but we are in a free market here.”
The frustration level among the truckers’ groups, which included the NTA, the GOTA and the Northern Ontario Truckers Association, rose rapidly during the second week of October. They threatened highway blockades similar to those staged by European truckers in September that effectively shut down a handful of countries for several days. But in spite of the bad feeling, Smith and Palladini managed to convince the truckers to come back to the bargaining table. As a show of good faith, Palladini and Transport Minister David Turnbull announced a deal with the Ontario Road Builder’s Association guaranteeing fuel surcharges for truckers working on highway contracts. Once again, though, it wasn’t enough.
“We reached a bit of a crossroads the other day,” admitted mediator Smith on Oct. 13, still holding out hope that an agreement could be reached. The truckers, however, were not optimistic. By that time, their demands had increased to a 24-per cent fuel surcharge based on average fuel prices that were charged in 1998, before they hit a 10-year low in 1999.
“Palladini is using his famous words, `Give us a few more days,'” said Moe Corriveau of the NOTA after the talks broke down for a second time. “I don’t encourage any blockading or anything like that. But some… they’re bound and determined to do something.”
The NTA held a strategy meeting at an Oshawa hotel on Sunday, Oct. 15. About 250 truckers showed up and the vast majority seemed ready and willing to take some kind of action. Deep divisions within the association quickly came to the surface, however, in a dispute over voting rights. It was revealed that the association only had fewer than 100 paid-up members at the time, in spite of NTA claims of as many as 2,000 members, as well as alliances with still other organizations. Several members resigned, including representatives from the vital Sikh and Polish driver communities. The association looked to be in danger of dissolving until NTA Bill Wellman rose to update the members on the ill-fated talks.
Wellman informed the crowd that although Palladini had pledged to bring in legislation forcing shippers to pay fuel surcharges, no immediate relief was forthcoming.
“We don’t have anything in writing,” Wellman said. “I’m only a messenger; that’s all I am. Mr. Palladini says he needs more time. I’ve been told they’ll do what they say. The message from here today should be, ‘OK Mr. Palladini, no more bullshit, you said you would regulate the surcharge, now do it.’
“You guys are independent businessmen,” he added. “If it’s your decision to light a fire under their ass, so be it.”
A motion quickly came from the floor calling for a general strike of NTA members beginning at midnight on Oct. 15. Following a unanimous vote, the truckers headed out, apparently united. That very night, truck blockades went up around an Ultramar cardlock in Whitby, Ont. and around several local auto-parts carriers. Over the course of the next two days, small groups of truckers staged blockades at the Oshawa General Motors plant (closing down one shift two hours early because of blocked parts), at a local food terminal and at several Whitby-area gravel pits, and staged a slow-moving convoy on Hwy. 401 east of Toronto. The protesters also threatened to stage a slow-moving convoy along Hwy. 401 to Queen’s Park to demonstrate their frustration.
“I’m saying, every carrier shut down for three days, and when people can’t get their groceries and they can’t get their gas and they can’t get anywhere, then it will all be over,” said NTA board member Brian Jones. But it was obvious that the protesters didn’t have the same numbers they had during the February crisis.
Palladini quickly convened a meeting of the working group on Oct. 16 to try and head off the protesters. He secured a promise from Wellman to keep protesting trucks off the road as long as the talks were progressing. But Wellman quickly found that he had little control over the more aggressive element of his membership. Only a threat to resign from Wellman, Jones, and NTA vice-president Keith Swayne averted a full-scale blockade.
Once again though, the peace was short-lived. The truckers walked away from the table
for the third time, on Oct. 17, after hearing the details of a new deal brokered by Palladini with the carriers and shippers. Under that plan the shippers and major carriers would have returned to independent operators anywhere from seven cents to 22 cents per mile, depending on the cost of diesel at the time the contract was signed. The rebates would come from the $1.05 per mile charge for fuel that is factored into shipping contracts. To Palladini’s dismay, Wellman argued that the deal was weighted in favor of the carriers and he could not sell it to his members.
“There’s no one more disappointed than I am,” Palladini said at a late-day press conference. “We have the commitment of the shippers, we have the commitment of the carriers. I just wish we had the commitment to sit at the table from the independent owner-operators.”
At about 3 p.m. on Oct. 18, more than 100 trucks set out from Whitby along Hwy. 401 in a slow-moving convoy headed for Toronto. The group’s plan was to head into the city to surround Queen’s Park, but the Metropolitan Toronto Police nipped that idea in the bud. After a meeting with police officials before the convoy left Whitby, the protesters agreed to stage a strictly controlled convoy under police escort along a pre-determined route.
In spite of police precautions, the convoy still caused rush-hour chaos along the country’s busiest highway and was the top story on evening newscasts. But even as the convoy was rolling through Toronto, Palladini was announcing that an agreement had been reached with the NTA to restart talks with the working group on Oct. 19.
Ironically, in a phone interview that day, Ontario Trucking Assoication president David Bradley admitted there was never a formal offer on the table, instead calling it “a framework for one.
“What killed it in the end was the NTA wanted a guarantee that every one of its members would get X cents in a surcharge, and that’s just impossible,” Bradley argued. “There are 100,000 shippers, 50,000 carriers and 20,000 owner/operators, all serving different markets. You can’t make one deal for every situation.
“We think this was a good faith attempt to provide a solution to the problems faced by independent truckers, but now it looks like the chance has passed.”
For his part, Bill Wellman felt that Palladini had betrayed the truckers, calling the minister’s threat to regulate fuel surcharges “an empty promise.” An attempted blockade of a North Toronto fuel depot by about 50 trucks on the evening of Oct. 19 was met with police cars and tow trucks. Wellman said the protesters were told to move by police, who said they had specific instructions to haul off any truck that didn’t comply.
Given the prevailing mood, the talks on Oct. 20 looked doomed to end in another stalemate. Then, amazingly, Wellman and representatives from the other truckers’ groups emerged from the meeting with what they called a “deal” with carriers and shippers guaranteeing fuel surcharges for independent owner/operators.
As their part of the pact, Wellman said, the truckers agreed to stop all protests and return to work. It looked as though the turbulent month would end on a winning note for the truckers, but it quickly became apparent that the other parties involved saw the “deal” in a slightly different light.
Speaking for the shipper community, Lisa McGillivray of the CITA pointed out on Oct. 23 that there was never a formal contract on the table guaranteeing the truckers anything. All the carriers and shippers agreed to, she said, was to work with the truckers to develop a set of voluntary guidelines that could be used to negotiate contracts with owner/operators, a position not that different from the one those groups took in late September.
“This is an ongoing issue,” McGillivray said. “You simply can’t come up with an industry-wide solution that is going to be acceptable to all parties in a few hours or a few weeks. It’s going to take time.” n