Rocket Science

At last year’s Trans-Atlantic Maritime Conference, Rick Knapp, the GM of Virginia International Terminals, reminded us that: “The Achilles’ Heel of the maritime industry is the truckers’ ability to deliver product to the door.” Recent events have justified that statement, but even prior to Mr. Knapp’s observation Labor and Industrial Relations authorities had been emphasizing the strain being placed upon that weakening link, and one of our commentaries brought out the point:

“Recall, if you will, the words of Michael B. Belzer, of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Labor Relations. In February 2000, at a seminar sponsored by the Transportation Research Board, he cited the low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions and recent rise (even back then) in fuel costs. He went on to emphasize that because harbor truck drivers are paid by the trip, rather than by the hour, and because they were not being compensated for the time spent waiting at congested marine terminals, many owner-operators have left the industry and have contributed to the severe driver shortage at our seaports. ‘It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why there is a labor shortage’, he said.

“We expect to be forewarned so that we can be forearmed. That has been the demand (or alibi?) from each segment of the supply chain, but could any warning be clearer than the one issued by Mr. Belzer more than four years ago? ‘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 cannot comprehend why people don’t respond to this as a national crisis’.”

Chuck Mack, director of the Teamsters union’s port division, expressed his concern for this crisis in this way: “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.” Well, not everyone.
• In June and July of 2004 there was a trucker stoppage in Miami.
• Earlier this year Teamster organizers from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico demonstrated at the Port of Miami. Teamster posters proclaimed the grievances. “Shorter Hours! Higher Pay! Lower Fuel Costs!” … “Unity on the Waterfront!”
• On April 29th more than 600 tractor-trailers blocked traffic as they slowly traveled bumper-to-bumper, coincidentally, along British Columbia’s Lower Mainland highways. The truckers took action, they said, because “nobody seemed to be listening to them”.
• And because they were still being ignored, about two months later more than 1,000 British Columbia container truck drivers went on strike, and the telling effect on Canada’s economy demanded the attention of previously aloof government officials. Truckers everywhere took careful note of this desperate response.
• Now it’s Miami again … then truckers in New Brunswick … and truckers in Toronto.
• Finally, just prior to Hurricane Katrina, U.S. truckers called for a nationwide strike on September 1st, but Katrina is keeping the plan on hold … for now. [Are we dumb, or what?]