Caution Flags

This column on September 30th quoted Mr. Belzer of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Labor Relations as saying; “Low wages, long hours, piece work and unsafe working conditions. You have working conditions that I believe can be characterized as sweatshops … If the problem is not resolved soon, you won’t have to worry about gridlock because there won’t be any trucks on the road … I can’t comprehend why people don’t respond to this as a national crisis”. You’ll recall that he was talking about non-union owner-drivers.

So was John Drewes of Devine Intermodal whom we quoted in our October 4th column. He was waving a caution flag when he said; “This is the first time since I’ve been in trucking that I don’t see new drivers coming into the industry”.

The Teamsters’ Chuck Mack also issued a warning in this regard when he said recently; “Conditions are so bad that the turnover rate among these port drivers exceeds 150 percent per year as they cycle in and out of the industry … It’s perplexing why no one is stepping up to the plate. Everyone is afraid to make the first move”.

At MARAD’s Short Sea Shipping Conference held in New York on recently, one of the most influential of our maritime authorities was taking a broader view and was quoted as saying; “The U.S. has yet to achieve a truly intermodal national transportation system. The system today represents an aggregate of public and private modes of freight and passenger delivery, each with its own stovepipe areas of interest and funding”. There could be no more accurate way to describe wasteful and costly overlapping procedures than the use of the synonym, “stovepipe”. The speaker citing this comparison, you may have guessed, was Chuck Raymond, CEO of Horizon Lines. Stressing the importance of coordination in the transfer of goods, he had stated at an earlier conference; “In my opinion, there isn’t a greater challenge facing our economy today than the challenge of safe and efficient movement in an ever expanding global market … The impending freight capacity crunch, therefore, leads us to one overriding policy question — what will happen if plans are not made today for tomorrow’s freight realities?”.

The four officials quoted above, along with a number of others cited in these commentaries, are giving us a preview of the disastrous conditions that await us. For the better part of ten years these admonitions have been directed at every segment of the supply chain, because each link, as in any chain, depends on the reliability of every other link. But it might be time to take a closer look at this analogous terminology we’ve been using. Mr. Raymond’s concept, the “stovepipe”, more accurately describes the loose-fitting, ragtag arrangement that makes up our intermodal system of product transfer. And he’s right. What we have is nothing like a functioning chain linkage. Strikes, slowdowns, harbor congestion, shortages of owner- drivers and other personnel … you name it. Almost every day a breakdown in one of these independent segments is making the headlines. Integration of these segments, as Mr. Raymond has recommended, would solve all our problems.