For the last two years Meredith Ochs and I have hosted a daily 3-hour talk show - Freewheelin' - on Sirius Satellite Radio's Road Dog channel 147. We just returned from MATS - the Mid-America Trucking Show - in Louisville, Kentucky where anyone who's anyone in the trucking industry displays their new wares or peddles their services. Before getting the gig on Sirius I never truly considered all that trucking means to this country. I've always enjoyed truck driving songs (the more maudlin the better), I'm old enough to remember the C.B. craze and can name just about every truck driving movie ever made: but pondering the importance of the American Truck Driver in the grand scheme of things is not an activity in which I ever engaged. My eyes have been opened.
Most four-wheelers (those folks in cars) view trucks as a hindrance on the highway and stereotype truck drives as a bunch of lard-ass rednecks with little or no brains. These people speed home from a store bitching about that 18-wheeler in their way and never make the connection between the stuff in their shopping bags and the cargo in that truck. As the saying goes, "If you bought it, a truck brought it." These same myopic four-wheelers don't realize there are women truckers, gay truckers, trans-gendered truckers, African-American truckers, Latino truckers, etc., etc. Nor do they understand there are company drivers and independent owner-operators, those who are over-the-road (OTR), moving loads long distances, never knowing where they might go next - and those who run dedicated routes. On Freewheelin' we've heard from 4th and 5th generation drivers whose great-grandfathers ran mule teams and who say "Trucking's in my blood..." and we've also gotten calls from former "corporate pukes" who gave up their desk jockey jobs so they could get out on the road, see some of the country and enjoy a little freedom.
But perhaps what the average four-wheeler understands least is just how fed up most truckers are. With the price of a gallon of diesel now over $4.00 in most states, tolls and highway taxes ticking ever upwards and the price of truck insurance skyrocketing, independent owner-operators are working on razor-thin margins with many claiming they'll soon be out of business. These are small business owners, the very people our current administration claims are the "backbone" of our economy. They feel betrayed by a country to which they've sacrificed so much, including any semblance of a family life. Even company drivers for whom operating costs are not an issue feel as if they get little or no respect on the road.
Truckers see the bail-out of Bear Stearns, wonder "What about us?" and begin - once again - to talk about striking. Or shutting their trucks off for a day or taking a "vacation", since a strike would be declared illegal. Legal or not, the strike chatter has reached a fever pitch, with some drivers creating websites like truckers4change.com to carry their message and test the waters. In the last few weeks there have been stories all over the web, in print and on TV and radio, including this article by Barb Ickes in the Quad City Times as well as a report on KTKA-TV about a strike set for April 1 (or perhaps it's April 3 or some other day in the next month or two). Two recent documentaries - Alligator on the Zipper and Big Rig - also shine a light on how hard it is to be a trucker these days.
Will a strike actually happen? And - if it does - will anyone notice or care? There was a trucker strike in Italy recently and it did bring similar issues to light and force the government to take those issues seriously. Can it work here? Only if the independent owner-operators who take part are joined in significant numbers by their company driver brethren. Otherwise, the numbers would be too small to make an impact. The trade organization OOIDA (Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association) has taken the position that a strike would be at best unwise, at worst criminal. The Teamsters haven't released any statements about a possible strike. And no one has mentioned - as far as I can tell - that a strike was attempted about four months back, to no avail. But tomorrow is April 1st and if there is a nationwide trucker strike (shutdown, stoppage, vacation, etc.) it will not be a joke. This country will come to a standstill.