Small fleets need bigger voice

by Bill Cameron

As a small carrier, believe it or not, you are a member of the majority – not just a ‘little guy.’ Statistics tell us that carriers with 10 or less power units make up 60% of all for-hire trucks on the road in Canada. So why do we (rightfully) feel so insignificant? In my opinon, it’s because of a severe lack of organized representation.

There are a myriad of organizations for smaller carriers or owner/operators and drivers. I’ve been approached by several and found that most (unfortunately not all) are directed by people with the absolute best of intentions, with a genuine concern for those they wish to serve. Unfortunately, they are all mostly ineffective. I don’t mean that as an insult, just an honest, straightforward observation. One substantial organization came on the scene several years ago, amid plenty of high hopes. Within months, some founding members left in a very publicly aired display of frustration with the direction the group was gravitating towards.

The same organization allowed various remaining members to write guest columns in nearly every industry publication. Unfortunately, most of these folks showed an uncanny ability to open their mouth solely to change feet, and to unilaterally blame drivers’ financial issues on their employers, showing many of us that this was not a group we really wanted to be affiliated with, or encourage our employees to join. A shame, really.

Another, much smaller organization contacted me one evening, about 10 years ago. The president of this group pretended to be a job-seeking owner/operator to get me on the phone. With the usual questions answered, he inquired as to our fuel surcharges, then argued that they weren’t high enough. In his urge to show me just how clever he was, he started quoting what various industry sources recommend, making me aware of his real identity and purpose.

When I pressured him to explain to me how fuel surcharges can be a one-size-fits-all percentage, he paused. If my competitors, I argued, are charging $2 per mile, but I’m charging $3, travelling to the same areas, my surcharge percentage can be considerably lower. I’ll still arrive at the same net dollar figure, resulting in a fair, transparent surcharge, not just a thinly veiled rate increase, as we know happens often. When he attempted to sputter his way through an explanation, I told him we were done. Sadly, this fly-by-night group is still in existence, I presume still offering incomplete advice based on generalities.

You don’t have to have read this column much to know that I’m not a supporter of any organization. My loudest wrath has been aimed at the Canadian Trucking Alliance, or here in Ontario, the Ontario Trucking Association, organizations which, depending on your outlook, want little to do with small carriers anyway.

I criticize them most because honestly, they’re the only organization that actually accomplishes anything substantial. (Whether you agree with what they accomplish is up to you). Why bother criticizing the ineffective groups? One thing I can never criticize the CTA or OTA for, is their determination and level of organization. If other groups could match their drive, and organization level, perhaps they would someday enjoy the same notoriety as the CTA or comparable provincial association. But there seems to be no attempts being made in this area.

At the risk of opening old wounds, consider the speed limiter issue in Ontario as an example. At every opportunity, the OTA issued statements, policies, and recommendations regarding heavy truck speed limiters. Right out of the gate, they had scientific facts and statistics to offer for consideration.

One of the smaller organizations fought back by handing out T-shirts proclaiming: ‘My speed limiter is in the driver’s seat.’ Hardly a substantial rebuttal, now was it?

I will repeat my own argument: The fuel economy and GHG emission numbers quoted by the OTA were generalizations. Those of us involved in heavy haul or running hilly country in higher speed limit jurisdictions – particularly with top-notch drivers – found that with speed limiters, our fuel consumption actually increased. This should suggest that GHG emissions increased as well. As a non-member of any group, I forfeited the right to state my case anywhere but in these pages. Generalizations or not, the OTA’s numbers came from legitimate scientific study, something the other public detractors either didn’t have, or didn’t capitalize on.

During the debate process, the Ontario government was guilty of a slightly unsavoury action, but with predictable results. A long-awaited public input session was announced, but on less than 24 hours’ notice. The OTA arrived, with all facts and arguments ready. Other pre-registrants arrived, complaining of the short notice, a recurring excuse for incomplete presentations. Although the notification of the meeting was unacceptable, we all knew for months that the day was coming. How could any registered presenter not be ready? Or does OTA really stand for Organized To Amaze?

Small carriers deserve representation indicative of the number of trucks we operate and volumes of freight we move. I don’t believe any existing organization could adjust their current agenda to stand toe to toe with the large provincial associations, so a new, ground-up association, with no political, or personal agenda involved, is required. We need straightforward, practical, representation preferably without using the phrase “competitive advantage” in every press release, and backed up by factual and realistic discussion. A board of directors consisting of recent retirees, with no current skin in the game would be ideal.

Who’s up for a challenge?

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