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A Rocky Business

CALGARY, Alta. - Like the legendary phoenix, the Alberta Construction Trucking Association (ACTA) is an entity that went down in flames, but which is now going through a rebirth. It's proving to be a ...

CALGARY, Alta. –Like the legendary phoenix, the Alberta Construction Trucking Association (ACTA) is an entity that went down in flames, but which is now going through a rebirth. It’s proving to be a difficult delivery, however.

Formed originally in the early 1980s, the ACTA grew out of the Alberta Gravel Truckers Association, expanding to encompass logging and other sectors of the construction trucking industry. The organization was successful until around the turn of the century before it started going downhill. Part of the reason for the bust? Alberta’s boom.

“Unfortunately,” says ACTA president Ron Singer, “times were too good in the last 10 years and the membership felt they didn’t need us.”

Singer says one of the problems is that construction truckers are independent-minded and prefer working on their own and, while that’s great to a point, “it’s critical to have associations because that’s what polices the industry, sets standards, creates a good working environment, deals with issues.”

The association’s fall was worsened by a leadership vacuum Singer admits led to membership numbers dwindling until they reached the point where “It basically became non-functional.”

The resurrection process began in 2005 when some industry members in Calgary revived the ACTA as an entity. But since the phoenix was essentially burned out, it’s been slow work to not only gain members, but to restore the relationships and credibility lost when the organization foundered.

“It’s been an incredible challenge,” Singer admits. “The industry has changed so significantly that none of the old rules apply and it’s very difficult now to get anybody to stand as a director or form a board of directors or executive.”

And some of the challenges are generational. “New guys don’t see the value of joining because they haven’t had the same training, the same background as the old timers who got the association going,” Singer says. “It’s a different culture, a different mindset.”

Singer attributes part of the changed mindset to today’s driver training, which he thinks should go beyond merely learning how to drive a truck and fill out a log book.

“You’re there for three days and that’s the extent of your training. But there’s so many other things a professional driver needs to know.” He cites the potential for mentoring by and networking with more experienced people in the industry as an important reason why younger drivers should support the association.

“You get someone who’s been out on the road for 30, 40 years and it’s just incredible the knowledge that they have,” he says. “Common sense knowledge about things like what to do in a snowstorm -do I stay where I am overnight or do I drive on? -just the knowledge that your life could depend on. We’ve lost so much of that over the years.”

The regulatory climate has changed as well and Singer says that, since the ACTA hasn’t been supported by a strong membership, the influence it’s had on the industry and regulators has been limited -to the industry’s detriment.

“Regulations haven’t been very supportive,” he says. “There’s been way too much conflict between legislators and the people in the industry.”

Associations like the ACTA, Singer points out, are a way to help ensure the trucker’s side is taken into account in pending rule and regulation changes. “Government and private interest groups want to change the regulations all the time -but they don’t take into consideration how they’re going to affect the industry. That’s why we need an association -we’re going to be the guys out there living with the regulations.”

One regulatory area Singer would like to see the ACTA get involved with is the implementation of car pool lanes. He says putting such lanes in where there’s a bad transportation network will cause turmoil for construction truckers because “They’re going to be sitting in the right lane while the traffic is flowing in the left lane. That’s not right because we pay taxes too, a lot of taxes and we have the right to be on those roads. It’s a big issue in Calgary.”

Then there’s the matter of leveling the playing field between big and small companies. Singer accuses some contractors of fostering a “divide and conquer mindset,” where truckers are played against each other to keep rates low and individuals weak. “The big companies have been very successful at that,” he says. “We’ve spent years trying to improve the industry but (some) don’t want it improved.”

Alberta’s is the freest, most enterprising system in Canada, according to Singer, but it’s a two-sided coin that has led to a cutthroat business climate. “We’re operating in a crisis mode,” he says, “Because just this year the market has gone from 2008 rates to below 2000 rates.” Singer names as culprits an oversupply of equipment and a lack of sustainable growth.

“You can grow an industry but it has to be healthy and sustainable. Things were so good for so long that we got big-time fat and lazy, with a lack of concern and responsibility. You could buy a truck and cut the next guy’s rate and take a job from someone else. That isn’t sustainable.”

He points to the Maritimes as an alternative way to handle the industry. “All the work (there) goes through the association,” he says, “And you’re guaranteed to work on certain projects, which is a credit to them.” He mentions a policy where one contractor can’t have more than 20% of the work on a particular project, with the rest going to association members and local companies. “It helps ensure fairness and that everyone has work and can make a living,” he says. “They really protect themselves; they have a good structure, regular elections, and (the association representatives) have to do their job or they won’t get past the annual meeting.”

But east is east and west is west. “There’s no way we can do it the same way in Alberta,” Singer admits, “because people here would never accept it.”

Despite Alberta’s different climate, though, Singer says construction truckers still need to support their association. “You don’t have to be president or even a director,” he says. “Just an active member -show up for the meetings and pay your dues and grow with the association. There’s strength in numbers, and it’s better for everyone.”

Singer says there are also strictly financial reasons that should encourage truckers to join the ACTA: its various programs. “We have a fuel rebate program again, through Chevron,” he names as one example, “and they’ve been awesome to work with. A member can get a cheque at the end of the year that can easily pay the membership dues, so it seems like a no-brainer.”

Singer would like to get the support of at least 5,000 companies in the construction trucking industry to help ensure a healthy industry and association. “If you have enough members, enough strength, you’re a force to be reckoned with,” he says. “If we had that kind of support, what we could do would be unlimited.”

It’ll take work though. “We have to rebuild our liaisons, and all our government contacts -many of whom have moved on and so we have to build relationships with entirely new people,” he says, claiming to have several pages worth of action plans he’d like to work on but lacks the resources for.

“Networking and partnership building is really important,” he says. “And we need people to get involved.” The ACTA is located at 400, 1040 -7 Avenue SW in Calgary and can be reached by phone at 403-244-4487.

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