Fuel for the fire

by John G. Smith and Frank Condron

OSHAWA, Ont. – What mighty things can grow from gripes aired in a coffee shop.

Thousands of the province’s truckers have answered the National Truckers Association’s call to shut down rigs, and still others have taken it upon themselves to run slow-moving convoys through the Toronto area, snarling rush-hour traffic along the way.

On Feb. 23, more than 2,000 owner/operators answered the call to a convention center parking lot in Pickering, Ont. to formally endorse their fledgling association. And to seal the deal, they all lined up to toss in $20 each, to help pay associated legal and administrative costs.

It all started back on Feb. 6, when 57 owner/operators from the Oshawa, Ont. area gathered in a coffee shop to discuss how they could protest high fuel prices that they feel are driving them out of business. A subsequent meeting was planned for Feb. 13 at the local Holiday Inn to gauge support. And it was there. With only about a week to spread the word by CB, telephone and a few flyers, the Sunday meeting still managed to attract close to 300 truckers.

Not long after the packed meeting got started, though, tempers quickly boiled to the surface. What started out as a rather stoic crowd degenerated at times into a shouting match, with some calling for an immediate shutdown of trucks, or protests at Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill.

“This is no joke people. This is our lives,” said Paul Bourgoise, an owner/operator who took control of the meeting, shouting at times from atop a chair. “If nothing happens in the next 30 days, I’m parking my truck for good … I can’t afford to work for the money I make.”

Among other things, Bourgoise called for truckers to tie red and white ribbons to their rigs as a show of support – and they were a common sight at the Pickering rally.

“Fuel prices have gone too high. We’re here for wages, too,” said Joseph Larocque of Oshawa. “Us guys need to make a living.”

Initially it was Laroque who began challenging the crowd on Feb. 13. “Are we here for more money or what?” he asked to cheers. “Shut the bullshit and let’s rock and roll.”

But while it was clear the truckers were looking to organize, they stressed that they wanted nothing to do with Teamsters representatives, who suggested unionizing. Owner/operators shouted them down, asking what the union did for fleets such as the now-defunct Route Canada.

It was clear by the end of the Feb. 13 meeting that these owner/operators were ready for action. But all they agreed to do that day was hold another meeting on Sunday, Feb. 20.

About 1,000 owner/operators made the next trip. Two MPs and two MPPs shared the podium with Bourgiose and other meeting organizers, and each got up to praise the truckers for their efforts to protest “legally”.

Since then, the group has developed five core demands: a flexible fuel surcharge, a retroactive fuel surcharge for drivers who have been subsidizing their carriers, a base rate adjustment, a long-term rate adjustment with a cost-of-living clause, and restored jobs for any driver fired for participating in protests. (They also want repossessed trucks returned.) While that meeting ended with no formal plan, the truck engines still began shutting down the next day, with truckers driving to locations such as the Fifth Wheel Truck Stop in Bowmanville, Ont. rather than to fleet yards.

Patty Bowman Kingsley left no secret about who was on-side and who wasn’t. “David Bradley,” she said during the latest rally, referring to the president of the Ontario Trucking Association. “You don’t speak for us.”

She obviously did. The current school board member and wife of an owner/operator has quickly become a key spokeswoman for the group.

“I take issue with that,” Bradley told Truck News, noting many members of the carrier group empathise with the truckers’ plight.

“They are the little guy at the end of the supply chain,” he said of owner operators, “and when shit rolls downhill, it usually ends in their lap.”

For now, they’re refusing to drive until that changes. n

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