Eastern truckers face catch 22

by Matthew Sylvain

PORT-AUX-BASQUES, Nfld. – It has been two years since historically high fuel prices gave birth to the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent Trucking Association (NLITA), and the group’s president Jon Summers is again calling for support.

“The problems that are in Newfoundland are no different than in the rest of the country, in the industry,” says Summers. “The problems and issues that started all of this a couple of years ago – when we formed – those problems and issues are still there.”

As he explains, fuel prices are only one of many things hurting the Canadian trucking industry in general and O/O’s in particular.

“It doesn’t really matter what the fuel costs, as long as you’re making enough to pay for it. It could be 10 bucks a litre, as long as you’re making enough to offset it.”

Of course, the problem boils down to money: Who collects it and who gets to keep the extra?

A major factor in that problem is the inability of the ordinary O/O to voice concerns to the people who make the decisions affecting the running of trucks and the moving of the freight, Summers also says.

It was with the goal of being heard that the NLITA (which had two notable successes at the negotiating table soon after it was formed: a uniform government-approved fuel surcharge and a two-year freeze on an increase in Marine Atlantic’s ferry rates to Nova Scotia), saw the value in joining the country-wide National Truckers Alliance of Canada.

“What we’re looking at, our short-term goals are to have representation to be able to lobby government in different areas – the Hours-of-Service regulations for one thing,” Summers says of NTAC.

Key for both NLITA and NTAC are, “To put things in the proper perspective for the O/Os,” he says.

“And our long term goals are to better educate people who are going into the industry in the ways of business, and safety and all other aspects of being an O/O. At the end of the day, we want a bunch of well-organized business people in that sector of the industry.”

Organizing an effective group can’t be done without members, and the devil, as always, is in the details.

The group is in the midst of a membership drive, sending out letters to approximately 1,400 owner/ops and small business people in the province.

With the absence of a major crisis to rally the troops, membership in the Newfoundland group has slipped to a core of roughly 60 members. The members of NLITA, Summers continues, “Are holding on, they see some light at the end of the tunnel with this association.”

Summers, who started his own trucking business 20 years ago, has been at the head of the NLITA since it sprung from a March 2000, meeting in Gander, Nfld.

A third-generation truck driver with a small operation in St. John’s, his sister and brother-in-law have been taking care of the company’s day-to-day operations while Summers recovers from a heart attack he suffered while working in Halifax last July.

Despite his health problems – he says he is recovering very well – Summers nevertheless focuses as much time as he can on running the association and on helping to get NTAC off the ground.

It was in March 2000, that a bottleneck in the world oil market forced the price of diesel to skyrocket, and angry O/Os launched protests from coast to coast. Newfoundland and Labrador in particular were hard hit, since Marine Atlantic, the Crown-funded company that provides ferry service to the Island, was also broad-sided by the steep jump in fuel.

As a result, Summers’ group took shape, as did the separate Newfoundland and Labrador Carriers’ Association. The provincial government lent a hand by providing the O/Os with a $25,000 grant to help get incorporated.

“What we did then is we talked to government officials about some problem areas, like safety issues at weigh scales and different parts of the highway that we figured the speed limit should be changed. They looked at it and made some changes, (but) they didn’t go along with everything,” Summers explains.

The association has also had moderate success building buying power, one of the areas where a large membership can help.

“The thing is, we have to have more members before we can become a sellable commodity,” Summers says. “In all of this, there is a catch 22. If you have the members, this is what you can do. But the (O/Os) are saying, ‘Show me what you can offer before I join.'”

Summers, who says the group represents O/Os from across the province and not just the densely populated region of St. John’s and Mount Pearl, says it has negotiated a lower rate on diesel fuel with Atlantic Petroleum. They are also discussing setting up a deal with a nation-wide tire distributor, “but we need to have the (membership) numbers to do it.”

Overall, he says, “members of this association are saving money today – but we could save a hell of a lot more if we had more members.”

The NLITA has also hired John Efford, a one-time Newfoundland politician who is especially skilled at organizing people. It will be his job to persuade the go-it-alone types to join the umbrella group.

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