Solidarity soon?

by Frank Condron

PICKERING, Ont. – There is a scene in the movie Hoffa when Jack Nicolson, playing the late (we think) founder of the Teamsters, storms around a Depression-era loading dock, urging the drivers to drop their loads and demand better pay and working conditions from their exploitative employer. One by one the drivers turn to listen, then one by one they drop their loads and start to fall in behind the charismatic leader.

The scene wasn’t nearly so dramatic on Feb. 23 on a wind-swept convention center parking lot just east of Toronto, but almost all of the same elements were present. Hundreds of independent drivers were gathered, all of them facing the prospect of financial ruin due to soaring fuel prices and what they saw as an unsympathetic trucking industry. One of the rally organizers stood atop a flat-bed trailer and asked the drivers if they wanted to come together to form an association that could fight for them against the carriers, the shippers and the various levels of government. “Yes” they responded as a group, although some murmured that they just didn’t want a union.

Then appeared a famous Canadian union head – Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers. And to the applause of the crowd, he pledged $10,000 to get the National Truckers Association going.

They sang Oh Canada to finish things off, but Solidarity Forever might have been just as appropriate.

The National Truckers Associ-ation is not a union, but the fact that the organization went from a handful of disgruntled truckers meeting in a coffee shop to a registered association with an estimated 2,500 members in just a few weeks is telling. Owner/operators are, by nature, independent individuals. But fear about losing trucks and livelihoods has made them feel vulnerable, so many are turning to each other for support and collective strength.

Given the “strength in numbers” mood of independent truckers at the moment, the presence of Hargrove at the birth of the NTA is even more telling. The CAW followed up that $10,000 donation to the NTA with a $150,000 nation-wide ad campaign to show union support for all truckers in the fight against high fuel costs. Obviously, Hargrove and the CAW think it’s a wise investment to let independent drivers know who their friends are.

“I said I will help them – no strings attached,” Hargrove said. “I am a typical union leader; I am interested in seeing people use their collective power to improve their lives.”

As well-intentioned as Hargrove may be, there is no denying the fact that owner/operators are probably more open to the idea of collective action now than they would normally be – hence the NTA. With no help coming from governments and stagnant rates, these truckers have been driven to the point of desperation, and desperate people will listen to anyone they think might be able to help them.

That makes them prime candidates for organization, and the unions are circling throughout the Toronto area. Aside from the CAW’s efforts on behalf of the NTA, the Teamsters have been busy fighting to organize drivers at Mackie Transport, and the United Steelworkers of America are working to organize independent drivers at the CP Rail intermodal yard in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.

“I think this fuel crisis has been a wake-up call, and now lots of owner/operators are coming around to the idea of organizing,” said CAW national rep Dave Tilley. “Our organization is actively out there in the trucking companies, talking to owner/operators and company drivers. And we have had some successes.”

The CAW currently represents about 5,000 drivers in Canada. The union recently organized 200 drivers at Ryder Logistics and ratified an agreement with the company that included a pay increase. The CAW also represents both owner/operators and company drivers with Myers, Buckley, Hendry, Thompson Emergency Freight and Loomis Courier.

The Steelworkers, meanwhile, have been “fairly active” in the trucking industry, according to communications director Pat Van Horne. The union currently represent a number of truckers in Quebec, recently joining forces with the Truckers’ Co-op, and is attempting to do the same thing for the independent drivers at CP Rail.

“We were told there would be guys at the meeting interested in organizing, but that was clearly not the goal of most of them there,” said Randy Donor of Teamsters Local 938, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a presentation to the truckers at the Feb. 13 meeting. “The agenda for some of the guys there was to draw attention to their circumstance and be radical. Three or four guys started yelling at once and we decided to leave. “

Donor and the Teamsters may have been just a bit too early. The following week, after staging some slow moving convoys along Hwy. 401 in Toronto and surrounding the Oshawa GM plant (in a protest coordinated behind the scenes by Hargrove) and some fuel depots with trucks, many venting truckers seemed to be satisfied that they were now doing something. Just 10 days after the Teamsters came away empty-handed, the NTA was formed and Hargrove was welcomed with open arms. As for the CAW’s $10,000 seed money for the NTA, says Donor, “I guess they are trying to organize them.”

The Teamsters already represent 1.5 million workers in North America, including 110,000 in Canada, from industries as varied as dairy products and janitorial services. But the union’s origins, of course, were in the trucking industry. Still, there are plenty of unorganized O/Os.

“I think they realize they need help, because the way things are isn’t working for them,” Donor said. “There is lots of exploitation in the industry – companies changing rates, dropping benefits. This fuel crisis is just another kick in the head. They can make noise, shut down the roads for a while, but only collective bargaining will work.”

Since last April the Teamsters have been before the Ontario Labour Board fighting to certify O/Os hauling for Mackie Transport out of Oshawa. Mackie is arguing that because the drivers are all independent contractors, they are not the same as a group of employees working for the same company. The Teamsters are arguing that the drivers are, in fact, ‘dependent’ contractors and are therefore certifiable based on the outcomes of a number of similar Labor Board applications.

Carriers who don’t want to deal with unionized truckers are free to void each O/O’s individual contract and bring in new independents. However, they run the risk of strike action by the union, which could disrupt their service to the point that customers start to look elsewhere.

And when outside drivers are affiliated with inside workers at a particular company, say through CAW membership, the consequences of labor unrest are multiplied.

Hargrove believes truckers are “just starting to wake up to the fact” that the trucking industry does not always have their best interests at heart. “I think the carriers have been able to convince them they are entrepreneurs, and it is propaganda that has kept them from coming together,” he said. “The owner/operators have legitimate problems and someone is going to have to help them … It can be the government. It can be the carriers and the shippers. But they are like any other group; we don’t turn anybody away.”

Of course, their level of success will probably be directly related to the length of the fuel crisis and the level of assistance truckers receive from governments and other industry stakeholders. Through their many organized protests, legal and illegal, and the formation of the NTA, many Canadian truckers have demonstrated a new desire to work together. When – and if – fuel prices drop, that motivation to work together may disappear. But if the unions make the most of this opportunity, it could transform the trucking industry for years to come. n

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