TORONTO, Ont. - Probably nobody pays more attention to the price of fuel at the pump than truck drivers. They hardly need to be told, then, that the price of diesel fuel has been inching up lately, to...
THIS SCENE COULD BE REPEATED: Problems that led to protests such as this one could come to a head once again. (File photo)
TORONTO, Ont. – Probably nobody pays more attention to the price of fuel at the pump than truck drivers. They hardly need to be told, then, that the price of diesel fuel has been inching up lately, to within easy striking distance of the oppressive levels the industry had to deal with this past winter.
After rising steadily throughout 1999, the average price of diesel fuel at the pump for January of this year was 65.4 cents per litre in Ontario, 67.4 cents per litre in Quebec and 62.4 cents per litre in New Brunswick. The average price for the month out West was about 10 cents cheaper. In February, at the height of the diesel fuel “crisis”, the price per litre spiked as high as 88.9 cents in Eastern Canada, but averaged out for the month at 71 cents per litre in Ontario, 75.9 cents per litre in Quebec and 75.8 cents per litre in New Brunswick.
Looking back, it was average fuel prices in the mid-to-low 70-cents-per-litre range that drove truckers off the road and sparked loud protests across the country. Given that fact, it might be surprising to know that the price of diesel fuel now sits just three or four cents per litre under that level. (According to T-Check, a U.S. firm that tracks diesel prices across North America, the average price of a litre of diesel fuel in Ontario on June 15 was 68.4 cents.) In fact, the average price of fuel at various points across the country is currently at or above the average price for January. And the grumbling that started last January, and grew into a roar in February, is starting to be heard again.
“It’s tighter now than it was in October and November of last year,” says Jonn Faustino a spokesman for the National Truckers Association. “It’s pretty tough. We were not making a lot of money before, but we are making less now. Some guys are getting a fuel surcharge and that is helping them to keep costs under control. But some carriers aren’t giving the surcharge any more, and some guys never got it.”
Adds Heather Whyte, NTA communications director: “The fuel is going up and the fuel is what broke drivers the last time. You can try to cut back on food and family expenses, but you can only cut back so far on things like fuel, tires and maintenance. Some truckers are finding they can’t stretch things any farther.”
Ralph Boyd, president of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association said while he realizes the oil producing nations and the oil companies have to make a profit, he hopes there is no price gouging going on.
“The margins are thin in trucking in the first place, but no business can withstand steady cost increases on an essential operating expense,” argues Boyd. “We are into the season when we should be seeing some relief, but we are not seeing any at all.”
Dwayne Mosley, president of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association agrees.
“It is definitely getting tougher to survive,” Mosley says. “Most of our members are holding their own right now with a 10 per cent fuel surcharge in place. But if it goes up much more, we are going to have to ask for more, and I don’t know if we’ll get it. At that point, I don’t know how many options we will have.”
With many truckers seemingly approaching financial trouble once again, the question becomes what will happen the next time fuel prices become just too much to bear? One clue may lie with the newly formed Standing Committee on Trucking. Formed in May of this year, members of the group include the United Steel Workers of America, CAW Canada, the Greater Ottawa Trucker’s Association, Confederation des Syndicates Nationaux (CSN), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the National Truckers Association, and the Owner/Operator’s Cooperative.
The group has met several times over the past few months to identify unifying issues and to develop ways to work together to lobby for truckers. It has also met with carrier and shipper organizations and politicians at several levels of government, including federal Industry Minister John Manley, without much success.
“What we are telling them about the problems faced by truckers seems to be falling on deaf ears,” says Dave Tilley of the CAW, which represents several hundred owner/operators. “No one wants to admit that the problem is partially their fault.”
Says Whyte of the NTA: “I don’t think the shippers and the carriers understand that what we need is a base rate increase.”
But with the organizing know-how and strike savvy of several major unions behind it, the Standing Committee on Trucking clearly has the potential to stage far more effective truckers’ protests than the sporadic ones that took place last February. It is a potential that Tilley acknowledges.
“We are not out there planning a massive shutdown of the industry. In fact, we are trying to avoid that,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised to see this problem come to a head again.” n
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