Fuel prices spark protests by Ontario O/Os

by Truck News Staff

TORONTO, Ont. – Perhaps there should be little surprise that a group born from last February’s high fuel prices would return this fall to the public stage. After all, prices at Toronto-area pumps hit at least 77 cents per litre late last month, exceeding those rates that were charged last winter.

Re-enter the National Truckers Association (NTA).

The 1,800-member group, dominated by owner/operators who serve southern Ontario’s automotive industry, was threatening a shutdown and blockades of such things as fuel depots if they didn’t see financial relief from soaring fuel prices. Double-digit fuel surcharges put in place last winter had typically dropped throughout the spring and early summer but hadn’t resumed with the latest upward push on the price of diesel. One automaker was paying a surcharge of a mere 3.5 per cent when the threat of protests began.

But the NTA wasn’t the only familiar face returning to a public debate about the trucking industry. Ontario Economic Development Minister Al Palladini – probably best known as the transportation minister when runaway truck wheels were making headlines – came forward with a threat of mandated fuel surcharges if necessary.

“Now I want to say something clearly,” he said in a Queen’s Park press conference. “The government is prepared to regulate, if the industry won’t regulate themselves, when it comes to fuel surcharges. This includes the fuel surcharges that shippers pay to carriers and carriers to owner/operators.”

Some shippers were less than enthralled with the idea. “A flat rate for surcharges just isn’t practical because transportation services aren’t a homogenized product,” said Canadian Industrial Transportation Association spokeswoman Lisa MacGillivray. According to MacGillivray, her association of shippers believes “a flat surcharge rate for all movement of truck traffic, it’s just not a doable thing. And certainly this is why we don’t believe that regulation is a practical solution to this issue, because no one knows better the cost of moving a load than a carrier and a shipper, and this is the basis of their negotiations.”

But questions remain about what the province has actually offered. Negotiations were continuing as Truck News went to press in late September, and the government had still failed to provide details about the specific value of the deal. Before they returned to work, the association’s members wanted a fuel surcharge equal to 12.6 per cent of their gross revenues, to offset increases in fuel prices that have occurred over the past year. When questioned on Sept. 25, Palladini said no specific number had been put on the table.

While the NTA had threatened to begin its shutdown unless money was put in its members’ pockets on Sept. 25, the wheels continued to roll.

“I know the guys are upset with me for not shutting it down,” NTA president Bill Wellman said. “But you’re not going to change what’s been wrong for 20 years overnight.”

Wellman found himself repeatedly stressing that there was no actual “deal” in place. “It’s a tentative agreement to keep us working until we get into negotiations,” he said.

For that matter, there were few concrete agreements of any sort in the province’s offer.

The most Palladini had presented was the promise of more meetings, particularly with a new “trucking industry working group” that would include shippers, the government, carriers and owner/operators. But it’s simply a forum. It’s meant to “look” at such things as shipper compliance fees and regulations for (freight) brokers.

“You must be patient with us because it does cross other ministries,” Palladini told reporters, explaining why specific figures weren’t in place. “But I did say that government would lead by example, and we have every intention of doing that. So I’m going to continue to facilitate these meetings, which will also include other colleagues of mine to help expedite and bring some relief to the owner/operators.”

Many of the other issues he addressed were already in the works.

Palladini talked of developing contract guidelines for owner/operators and carriers, but that has already been developed by the Ontario Trucking Association. He mentioned a promise to upgrade the Class A licence, but that was already in the works. Although the province is phasing out the retail sales tax on warranty repairs and insurance premiums, Palladini said he would “look” at accelerating the phase-out. So too would the province look at improving Drive Clean mandatory emission tests and ask the federal government to review the deductibility of meals.

No concrete promises here.

Meanwhile, while it seems to have the ear of the government, the NTA has been unable to unite the wills of Ontario’s independent truckers.

About 40 aggregate trucks parked on the shoulder of the road at highways 12 and 48 to call for a 15 per cent surcharge from Toronto-area quarries. Promises for a 12.6 per cent surcharge for government contracts aren’t enough on their own, said Bill Blundell, a spokesman for the group. “We just haven’t heard nothing from the quarries. They’re not coming back with anything for us … We just want to get back to where we were two years ago (in terms of take-home pay).”

Maurice Corriveau of the 150-member Northern Ontario Truckers Association came forward complaining that his group hadn’t been involved in the negotiations at all. “They (the NTA) have views and stuff that I can appreciate, but if we’re going to revamp this industry, let’s all do it,” he said. “But the associations down south are recognized more.” Palladini wouldn’t even return his calls.

But other groups representing everyone from limousine chauffeurs to taxi drivers have come forward to join the cause, Wellman adds. “There’s people calling every five minutes. Where were they when we needed them last time?”

“This issue is not only important to truckers, but to all Ontarians. it is a vital part of the economy, and it is vital that it thrives and prospers. That’s why I am encouraging everyone to keep calm and keep going until we reach a resolution,” Palladini said. “I wish I had a magic wand or could snap my fingers and make (a deal) happen.”

For now, it’s a matter of meeting to avoid any protests. But if the trucks block traffic, the minister admitted that police might become involved.

“There is a plan in place,” Palladini said. “Hopefully we won’t have to revert to that plan.” n

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