WHITBY, Ont. - Bill Wellman was quietly voted president of the National Truckers Association last April at a meeting in a mostly empty hockey rink in Whitby, Ont. His trucking career began at age 18 w...
FACING THE MEDIA: Bill Wellman became a familiar face in the news this past fall as tensions rose over high fuel prices. (Photo by John G. Smith)
WHITBY, Ont. – Bill Wellman was quietly voted president of the National Truckers Association last April at a meeting in a mostly empty hockey rink in Whitby, Ont. His trucking career began at age 18 with a driver service in his hometown of Springdale, Nfld. He moved to Oshawa, Ont. 15 years ago an hauled auto parts until he had enough saved up to buy his own truck. Now 40, Wellman owns and operates three trucks.
Wellman has been the NTA’s point man in talks with the Trucking Industry Working Group, convened in late September by Ontario’s Economic Development Minister Al Palladini. The working group has the task of finding solutions to the problems facing the trucking industry.
Truck News sat down with Wellman recently at the Ultramar cardlock in Whitby, Ont. to get his first-hand impressions of the events of the past few months and an inside view into the ongoing negotiations that could ultimately determine the future of trucking in Ontario and across Canada.
TN:What was the overall mood at the meetings of the Trucking Industry Working Group that you attended?
BW: In the beginning, somewhat friendly. But as the meetings progressed, it got more demanding – “OK, what do you want, and what are you going to do for us.”
TN: Did you get the feeling that everyone-the government representatives, carriers, and shippers-was working toward the same goal?
BW: I think the problem is that the government really doesn’t know how to address the problems, and everyone is confused about what the problems are. Even if you address one problem, you still have other problems to address.
TN: What role did the representatives of the carrier community play in the talks and how would you characterize their attitude toward the process?
BW: The Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) represented the carriers in the meetings. I think, deep down inside, David (Bradley, OTA president) says we (truckers) need an increase. But again, if the increase had to come from the carriers, they weren’t going to go along with it.
David took a leadership role as the president of the OTA, and he spoke about what he thought they could do… he is all in favor of changing things, but also he’s in favor of changing things that would benefit his organization.
TN:Would you say the carriers are looking for a rate increase?
BW: They’re looking for a rate increase. They’re looking for double trailers going down the highway. They’re looking for heavier axle weights. We are looking for a single trailer going down the highway and getting paid what we deserve to haul that trailer.
TN:The OTA has steadfastly maintained that its members are already paying a fuel surcharge. Are you personally aware of drivers who are still not receiving it?
BW: The carriers are only passing on what the shippers are passing on. So if it’s a GM or a Goodyear passing on seven per cent of the gross, that’s all the carriers are passing on. They’re not passing on any of their own money.
One gentleman I spoke to said his company is taking 20 per cent of his surcharge. So the shipper might be paying seven per cent of the gross, the carrier is taking 20 per cent of that for his part, and then he is passing on the rest of that to the owner/operator. So it’s still not getting through.
TN:What was the attitude of the shipper representatives at the meetings?
BW: We had a lot of different shipper representatives at the meetings. They didn’t like us at all. They don’t want to give any more money. It was like, “Why should we pay you,” even though fuel has gone up around 75 or 80 per cent. They say they are willing to sit down and work with us, but they want to guide us into “running a better business.”
TN:Do you believe there was, in fact, a verbal agreement reached on the surcharge issue in the meeting on Oct. 20?
BW: When we were in that room, where we spent from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, and achieved nothing, I said it’s time to go home. Then they said, “what do you want?” So we went out and took a piece of paper and wrote it up. Then we brought it back and they added a few little things. Then the chairman of the board, Brock Smith, stood up and said, “Is everybody in the room agreeing on the 8.9 per cent surcharge and what’s in this letter?” Everybody in the room agreed.
TN: Do you now believe that the shippers will abide by that agreement?
BW: No… the shippers will not. The carriers will not. The word that I am getting from most people is, “there’s nobody forcing me to do this, why would I do it?” Until it’s actually set up like the letter said, with the ombudsman, it isn’t going to happen.
TN:When you were in these meetings, did you feel like you were just getting lip service?
BW: Ever since we started this back in February and March, we have been in what I call a spin cycle. It was, “OK, we’ll send them to this guy, send they to this guy,” and we’d go round in circles. And I told them at that meeting, if anyone tries to put the truckers in a spin cycle again, it will be the wrong washing machine to be in. So yes, there is a lot of lip service.
TN: How are your relations with Al Palladini?
BW: Mr. Palladini never talked down to me, by any means. If you want to go all the way back to day one, everything we asked for, in getting us these meetings with these different groups, he did. The problem is, Mr. Palladini is not there all the time, and when he’s not there, it’s a different group.
TN:Do you believe Palladini will ever legislate a fuel surcharge, as he threatened back in September?
BW: It will never happen. Big business doesn’t want to be regulated in any way and they won’t allow it to happen. I think Mr. Palladini spoke from his heart, what he felt should happen.
TN:The NTA has always officially opposed trucker protests and blockades. But do you think you could have managed to force the creation of the Trucking Industry Working Group and secured this apparent agreement on contract guidelines without protesting?
BW: I agree that protests and blockades do work. I don’t agree with blocking the highways, but protesting is the only way that you are going to get your point across.
Even though some people say that they would have got their surcharge if we hadn’t kicked up a fuss, if they believe that, there is something wrong. They wouldn’t have got a cent. Once we come off the front page, nobody does a thing.
TN:Were you surprised that more truckers didn’t support the protests and blockades?
BW: Surprised, no. Disappointed, yes. You have to understand that lots of guys are getting some kind of surcharge. Everybody is so close to losing their trucks. If they took a few days or a week off work, it makes a difference.
TN:Do you believe there are bigger protests on the way?
BW: It’s coming. There are splinter organizations now forming around us, and that’s their whole stated goal. They don’t want to talk to the government. They want to shut everything down and make the government come and talk to them.
TN: The NTA has had internal problems of its own. Is that behind the association now?
BW: I think we are finally getting to a point where we have brought some different people in to help run the organization and now it’s making the proper moves and moving ahead. What the organization needs is support, (mainly in terms of) funding. I was in a meeting where the government said, “Look Bill, the government’s got all kinds of money, and we can stay out here and do this. But you don’t have any money and you won’t be heard.” So what the NTA needs is support, whether it’s government support or member support.
TN: There has been a lot of disagreement about how many members the NTA actually has. Do you have a fix on that number now?
BW: When we started out, we had ab
out 1,800 cards signed with the $10 initiation fee. But wholly paid members ($120 annual fee), the number of people that belong to the association, right now, is approximately 1,890.
TN: You have been accused, both by individuals within your organization and outside it, of profiting personally from the NTA and this ongoing dispute. How do you answer that charge?
BW: Somebody has made the comment that all I’m doing is lining my pockets. Well maybe they should come and look at the $11,000 tax bill I just got, plus the WSIB bill I just got, plus the three months I’m behind on my truck payments. n
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