Adding fuel to the fire

by Frank Condron

OSHAWA, Ont. – Frustrated at the lack of progress being made at the provincial level to gain relief from escalating fuel costs for independent truckers, the National Truckers Association (NTA) has taken it’s case to a higher court.

Brian Tobin, Federal Minister of Industry, made a special stop in Oshawa during the campaign before the recent federal election and sat down to a private meeting with representatives of the NTA. The meeting came at the request of NTA president Bill Wellman, who like Tobin, is a native Newfoundlander.

The meeting took place at the campaign headquarters of Oshawa Liberal MP Ivan Grose. After cutting a ribbon to officially open the office, Tobin moved to a back office for a closed-door meeting with Wellman and NTA vice-president Keith Swayne.

Wellman explained to the Ottawa politician that meetings of the provincially appointed Trucking Industry Working Group have been continuing without the NTA or any group representing the owner/operators. He also made it clear that truckers in the province are growing restless and large-scale protests could be on the horizon.

When he emerged from the 15-minute meeting, Tobin expressed sympathy for the plight of the independent truckers and said, as industry minister, he had an obligation to take an active interest in any dispute that could potentially harm the nation’s economy.

“I will do my part,” said Tobin. “I am happy to sit down and talk. In Newfoundland, when the crisis with the truckers came to a head last spring, we facilitated talks between the shippers and the truckers and created a forum for serious dialogue. But it took sitting down and recognizing the need for assistance.”

In addition to facilitating talks between the various concerned parties, Tobin’s provincial government also chipped in $25,000 to help support the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent Truckers Association (NLITA), a group that, like the NTA, sprang up during last winter’s fuel crisis.

The NLITA eventually negotiated a voluntary surcharge schedule with carriers and shippers in that province. O/Os now receive 10.5 per cent on truckload shipments and 6.22 per cent on less-than-truckload. The surcharges also fluctuate up or down by one per cent for every five-cent movement in the price of diesel fuel.

“It’s strictly voluntary, but it’s working,” said NLITA president Dave Cook. “To say 100 per cent of carriers and shippers are paying it would be a little far-fetched. But most that aren’t have capped their fuel a little lower, so one offsets the other.”

Tobin said groups like the NTA and the NLITA are vital to the discussion process.

“If you are going to make meaningful progress, you have to have a voice for the truckers that works. And what we did in Newfoundland was put money on the table,” Tobin explained. “My advice to (provincial Economic Development Minister Al Palladini) is to do that, and I suggest the Premier (Mike Harris) get involved.”

When asked what immediate relief the Federal government might offer strapped owner/operators, such as cutting the federal taxes on fuel, Tobin pointed out that no action of any kind could be taken until the outcome of the federal election was determined. After that, he said, “these issues will be addressed.”

“I’ll do more than try,” Tobin said. “I can be an honest broker. The trucking industry needs an agreement with teeth that will work. I have written a letter to Mr. Palladini about this matter and suggested that, after the election, we put our heads together and see what we can do.”

For his part, Wellman emerged from the meeting with cautious optimism.

“He said he is in our corner, and I believe him,” Wellman said. “And provided the current government is still (in power) after the election, he said he will work for the truckers.”

Tobin left with a copy of a letter signed by Palladini outlining the terms of an apparent surcharge agreement reached by the working group in October. The NTA reps argue that that agreement is not being honored. Wellman suggested Tobin could “apply pressure where pressure is required” to make a Newfoundland-style agreement work in Ontario.

Ironically, Palladini also claimed to be in the truckers’ corner in September when he threatened to “police the industry if it won’t police itself.” But the threat of a legislated fuel surcharge now appears to be an empty one. When reminded of that fact, Wellman simply shrugged.

“Tobin may be our last hope,” he said.

There is no legislation in place to back the surcharge agreement in Newfoundland, but Cook said Tobin, then Premier, made it clear that the agreement would be enforced. n

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