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B.C. gravel, container haulers threaten shutdown

SURREY, B.C. - Owner/operators in B.C. are agitating to bring the province's economy to a halt unless the government cuts prices at the pump. Two groups of owner/operators have led the fight against s...

SURREY, B.C. – Owner/operators in B.C. are agitating to bring the province’s economy to a halt unless the government cuts prices at the pump. Two groups of owner/operators have led the fight against surging fuel prices.

Gravel haulers are demanding a 12 per cent fuel surcharge and owner/ops hauling containers are protesting high fuel costs and long wait times at Vancouver ports, among other things.

During a recent raucous meeting of more than 300 unionized and non-unionized truckers in Surrey, B.C., there were repeated calls “to shut down the Trans-Canada Highway. We’ve got to shut down the bridges. Pick a week, pick a month – shut Vancouver down.”

B.C. Teamsters Local 213 president Don McGill called the meeting because he said many of B.C.’s owner/operators are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. He added that half of the owner/operators on B.C. roads could be forced to park their rigs within six months due to fuel, repair and others costs.

He said owner/operators are facing an increase in monthly overhead to the tune of between $1,200 and $2,000 thanks to rising diesel costs. Many O/Os work for fixed rates established with carriers, he pointed out, and they have no way to recoup the unprecedented cost of fuel. The protests come during a provincial election campaign and at a time when both container haulers and dump truck operators are busier than ever. Truckers specializing in transporting containers are dealing with record shipment volumes through the Port of Vancouver and the construction industry is gearing up in preparation for Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics.

“When the hell is someone going to start talking about the crisis in the transportation industry?” an angry McGill demanded.

He was livid that just days before the protest, Prime Minister Paul Martin visited Vancouver and handed the province’s municipal governments $636 million in fuel tax revenue.

“How about giving some of that gas tax back to commercial truckers so we can stay in business?” he said during the recent meeting.

During that same meeting, some truckers suggested shutting down highways, but it was eventually decided to first hold several meetings with decision makers before resorting to blockades.

Some dump truck operators, however, did take their protest to the street May 6, slowing traffic as they drove through Surrey and New Westminster.

“If they don’t get this fuel surcharge, they’re dead serious – they’ll stay off the job as long as it takes,” businessman Gurnam Johal told local media.

“We need immediate short-term relief and then work on the long term,” McGill told the Vancouver Province. “We have an industry in trouble. Government has the ability to quickly pull together all of the stakeholders.”

At a recent Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) management conference, Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) CEO David Bradley admitted he was puzzled by the timing of the latest protests. Transportation Media research completed this January indicates that more than 90 per cent of shippers are paying a fuel surcharge. It’s an area where the industry has shown considerable improvement, said Bradley. So where’s the money going?

“I don’t know where the fuel surcharge is going…but it sure as hell isn’t getting to these guys,” McGill told Truck West.

Paul Landry, president of the B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA), said that “As an association, our view is whoever pays for the fuel should get the surcharge.”

But the association doesn’t get involved in labour issues or how carriers establish their rates, he added.

“I have a great deal of empathy for the owner/operators to the extent that fuel has gone up dramatically and that’s a major component of their cost,” Landry said. “My hope is that through bargaining, the industry will come to understand the demand and some effort will be made to provide additional revenue.”

For its part, the Owner-Operators’ Business Association of Canada (OBAC) has appealed to O/Os to remain diplomatic when bringing attention to the issue. In a recent news release, OBAC said blockades and protests “will have little impact on fuel pricing and will serve only to alienate truckers from the communities they serve.”

“Rather than clambering after governments to cut fuel prices, owner/ops should be focusing their attention on the real problem – inadequate haulage rates – and going after their customers to start paying what it costs to have their freight moved,” said OBAC executive director, Joanne Ritchie. “Tax exemptions and rebates are band-aid solutions when what’s needed is open-heart surgery.”

Still, tax exemptions and rebates are exactly what the Teamsters were pushing for when Truck West went to press. Among the remedies being discussed were exemptions from the GST, PST or a generous share of the federal fuel-tax rebate to municipalities. Others suggested a boycott of fuel companies until they bring prices down.

B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen told the Province he’s willing to meet to discuss the crisis. But he said the government doesn’t set oil prices.

The government, he added, believes it can best help by working on road and bridge infrastructure.

Hansen would also not commit to exempting truckers from the 15-cent-a-litre B.C. tax on fuel, nor would he agree to subsidize the trucking industry to offset costs.

Shippers have voiced some concern over the recent protests, but have reported no large-scale impact on their ability to ship their goods.

Bob Ballantyne, president of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, told Truck West that “Obviously it’s not good news for the shipper community any time there’s a disruption to freight services of any mode.”

However, he added “Most shippers indicated they are paying a fuel surcharge and that really should be used for what it’s advertised for. It should be used to pay for extra fuel costs truckers are facing and that includes owner/operators. If people who are hiring owner/operators are not flowing through the fuel surcharge to O/Os, that doesn’t seem to be reasonable.”

And in a recent newsletter, the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association said “Truckers complain that because of low revenues, they are unable to afford to provide proper safety and maintenance of their trucks. This is caused in part because of delays at the port terminals on the West Coast. Nevertheless, part of the problem is caused by the truckers themselves who constantly undercut rates.”

In the meantime, trucking association such as OBAC and the BCTA are hoping cooler heads prevail and a solution emerges from negotiations between O/Os and other stakeholders.

“I think there are market mechanisms for dealing with these issues,” Landry said.

“We do have concerns with respect to inconveniencing the public with convoys – the public should not be punished in any sort of way.”

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