Protesting O/Os win promises of fuel help

by Frank Condron

TORONTO, Ont. – After more than a month of failed negotiations, blockades and highway protests, Ontario truckers appear to have succeeded in winning at least the promise of relief from sky-high fuel prices.

The leaders of the National Truckers Association, the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association and the Northern Ontario Truckers emerged from an Oct. 20 meeting with representatives from government and carrier and shipper associations with a verbal agreement on a basic set of contract guidelines. The various parties, all members of the trucking industry working group convened in September by Ontario Economic Development Minister Al Palladini, also agreed to work with a government-appointed “ombudsman” in the development and implementation of the guidelines.

At the heart of the agreement is the promise of an 8.9 per cent fuel surcharge, calculated on a Jan.1, 2000 base fuel price of 50 cents per litre; that works out to about an additional 14 cents per mile for most truckers. And while NTA president Bill Wellman acknowledges that an agreement to establish contract guidelines doesn’t put money in truckers’ pockets right away, he believes it sets in motion some long-term changes.

“We haven’t had anything in 20 years,” Wellman argues. “The contracts we have now are worthless, and without a proper contract, the O/O is going to die. Once everyone is working off the same basic contract, there will be a level playing field. After that, if an O/O is a bad businessman and can’t make a go of it, then it’s his own fault. But right now, 99 per cent of O/Os can’t make a go of it for no fault of their own.”

Wellman said the industry group will work through the coming weeks to finalize the contact guidelines, and the government has pledged to have the ombudsman in place by Nov. 1. Other issues up for discussion include business training for O/Os, and new regulations governing load brokers. In exchange for the co-operation of carriers and shippers, the truckers’ associations have agreed to stop all protests and return to work.

Despite lacking legislation promising to back up the guidelines, Wellman is confident that most carriers and shippers will live up to the spirit of the agreement.

“We have assurances … that 100 per cent of the surcharge will be passed through. So I don’t think there will be anyone out there now who will be naive enough not to pay it,” he says. “It is on the books now, and the ombudsman will have the right to come in and tell carriers that they have to pay it. Besides, the truckers know what promises were made, and if people don’t live up to it, they are going to have a real war on their hands.”

Mo Corriveau of the Northern Ontario Truckers is clearly not as confident that carriers and shippers will live up to the agreement. He would have preferred to see a government-imposed surcharge.

“We may have guidelines in place to work from, but this agreement isn’t written in stone,” Corriveau cautions. “We were pushing for legislation. Palladini said he would do it, but he still hasn’t done it.”

The agreement actually took Palladini off the hook, at least temporarily, with respect to the issue of industry regulation. At the beginning of this latest fuel crisis, the minister appeared sympathetic to the cause, threatening to mandate fuel surcharges if necessary. “If the industry won’t police itself, then government will do it for them,” he said.

But while Palladini praised the agreement in a letter to the industry working group on Oct. 20, he made no mention of how the deal might be enforced or whether penalties would be put in place to punish carriers and shippers that refuse to follow the guidelines. In fact, Palladini reiterated the government’s position that an industry-led solution is the “most effective way of dealing with the issue of diesel fuel surcharges.” In short, the industry is not likely to see mandated fuel surcharges any time soon.

The notion that the Oct. 20 agreement is anything but a done deal was further dispelled by Lisa MacGillivray of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, who represented the shipper community at the bargaining table. MacGillivray said that there was never a contract-type deal on the table throughout the negotiations. Rather, she said the parties have merely agreed to continue to work on a set of voluntary guidelines to help govern O/O contracts.

“It’s not collective bargaining,” McGillivray explains. “The relationship isn’t between the trucker’s associations and the carriers’ or shippers’ associations. It is between each individual O/O and the company that contracts their services. We are trying to give them the tools to ensure that the fuel surcharge is passed on. They can take the guidelines to the people they contract with and continue the dialogue there.”

Wellman says he knows that there are truckers out there, many within his own organization, who believe they should have continued protesting until the government legislated surcharges. But truckers simply can’t afford to protest indefinitely, he says, and he believes the government doesn’t have the stomach to regulate the industry anyway in the face of stiff opposition from the shippers.

“If the truckers walk away from this, they are only going to hurt themselves,” Wellman argues. “We have fought for these guidelines for six months. And if this isn’t sufficient, then someone else can come and be the president of the NTA. I just want to go up and down the road and be able to make a living.” n

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