On a news-filled day when protests erupted across the country to protest COVID-19 “shelter in place” restrictions, about 100 independent owner-operators accomplished something that other protesters routinely fail to do. They got the direct attention of a sitting U.S. president.
At 9:42 p.m. on Sunday, May 3, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I’m with the TRUCKERS all the way. Thanks for the meeting at the White House with my representatives from the Administration. It is all going to work out well!”
Earlier in the day, White House representatives showed up at the demonstration site bearing gifts — a cloth bag emblazoned with the presidential seal and filled with hats bearing the messages “USA Strong” and “Keep America Great.” The Trump tweet was the first official public acknowledgement from the government of awareness of the “mayday” protest that began May 1.
The ruckus attracted the attention of 160,000-member OOIDA (Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association), which weighed in on Saturday with an informational letter from Lewie Pugh, the association’s executive vice president, to its membership that acknowledged historically low freight rates and provided a link to report broker abuse.
Social media erupted with responses to the protest. Some people were jubilant at the movement’s success in attracting the attention of The Washington Post and other media outlets, culminating with a tweet from Trump himself.
Others cautioned that the attention was only a first step and that the issue that could take more time, and more protest, to resolve.
Still others cautioned participants to be careful what they wish for. Mark Rasmussen commented on The Trucker’s website, “I want to be an owner-operator and own my own business, but I want the government to take care of me. You can’t have it both ways.”
A common sentiment expressed was that owner-operators who haul cheap freight are helping keep rates low for everyone. Brandon Montgomery, who posted that he’s been parked for seven weeks now, said, “If you haul cheap freight YOU are the problem. PARK THOSE RIGS.”
The issue facing protest organizers and participants now is what they’ll do with the newfound attention, especially if, as expected, the result is a meeting with Trump himself — or at least with administration officials.
The protest has been centered around low freight rates, but opinions diverge quickly from there. Should organizers ask for federal regulation of brokers with, perhaps, a mandated percentage of revenue brokers are allowed to keep? And, if so, what is a reasonable percentage?
Another potential avenue is increased transparency. Brokers are already required to provide rate information to every party that participates in each load. Truckers are entitled to know how much the broker was paid by the shipper, any additional services the broker provided and more. All that is required is that the owner-operator ask for the information. The majority of owner-operators believe, however, that asking for this information will result in being “blacklisted” by that broker and being unable to conduct further business.
A federal mandate that brokers must provide this information at the time of settlement with the trucker wouldn’t necessarily increase the percentage of revenue to the carrier, but it would increase broker transparency by eliminating the trucker’s responsibility to request it. Broker retribution would also be greatly reduced, since they would be providing the information to every carrier they contract with.
OOIDA expressed support for this position April 28 when Norita Taylor, media spokesperson for the group, told The Trucker that OOIDA would like to require brokers to provide electronic records as soon as a haul is complete.
A meeting with the Trump administration might be an opportune time to discuss financial assistance for owner-operators, too. As self-employed business owners, most don’t qualify for unemployment benefits in their home states. The U.S. Small Business Administration has been instructed to make an additional $50 million available for low-interest loans to small businesses. The funds, however, are distributed to the states, which then work with financial institutions to provide funding to small businesses. The process for obtaining the cash isn’t clear, and there’s a question of whether small trucking businesses would qualify for the loans since they aren’t officially “shut down” by government mandate. Suspending operation due to unprofitable freight rates may not be looked upon in the same light as a mandated closing.
Some owner-operators may not be able to put together an application package to satisfy lenders, which depend heavily on business plans, profit-and-loss statements, and creditworthiness to decide who gets the money.
Other complaints that have been made include elimination of the requirement for electronic logging devices (ELDs), regulations addressing detention conditions and pay, access to restrooms and break areas at shippers’ and receivers’ facilities, and even a ruling by the FMCSA that would allow interstate truckers to carry loaded firearms in all jurisdictions.
A video posted on Facebook today (May 4) by one of the protest organizers, Rick Santiago, demands that the FMCSA be “eradicated” and antitrust laws be eliminated, although an explanation of how either action would come about — or how it would benefit owner-operators — was not provided.
Hopefully, organizers will remain focused on a small number of key issues as they remain in Washington to continue pursuing their cause.
[Photo courtesy of Rebecca Doty via Facebook]
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.