WASHINGTON — Naysayers had been at it since before the start of the May 1 “mayday” protest by small trucking business owner-operators. It seemed that no one, perhaps not even the protesters themselves, thought the protest would result in much change. Many thought that, like the “slow rolls” that happened in Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix earlier, and even like past trucker demonstrations in the capital, truckers would do their thing and then go home, claiming victory for raising awareness of the truckers’ plight while accomplishing little, if anything.
This protest was different.
The movement of owner-operator trucks to parking places along Constitution Avenue almost didn’t resemble a protest at all. Horns were blown at specific intervals, but when is Washington ever without the din of traffic noise? In the COVID-19 pandemic environment, traffic was already severely reduced, and the usual throng of tourists was gone.
Well-mannered trucking-protest participants made friends of Metro and Park Police and Secret Service agents. Local residents and workers made signs for their cars and vans, mirroring the messages they had seen on protester trucks and blowing their horns, too. Smells wafted from charcoal grills as people gathered under waving American flags to share the dinner sizzling on the coals.
When the protest was over after three weeks, the giant piles of litter left after most protests weren’t there. The polite protesters left the area cleaner than it was when they arrived.
Still, the criticism continued. Some said the truckers were fighting for the wrong things. Others said they shouldn’t be protesting at all. Names were called. People were banned from social-media sites because of their ugly verbiage. And now that it’s over, some people question what was really accomplished.
A grassroots protest, however, isn’t a labor negotiation. It doesn’t end with a signed contract between union and management. And, under the United States’ form of government, there are no royal decrees to instantly settle disputes. There are channels to follow, agencies to involve. Tangible results take time, but they are results, just the same.
So, what results did the polite protesters achieve?
- They got their White House meeting. They didn’t always agree on the issues, but they never wavered from their desire to be heard. Presidential tweets and soundbites favoring their cause were welcomed, but not enough. Even when their cause made national news due to the sound of air horns during a Rose Garden press conference, they weren’t done. They said they were staying until they got their meeting — and they did.
- The Department of Justice reversed its decision not to investigate brokers for collusion and for price gouging during a time of crisis. In fact, the one time that protesters blocked Constitution Avenue was in response to a DOJ announcement that it was not investigating. That decision changed, quickly.
- Although some of the protesters’ demands were already being worked on by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), things were proceeding rather slowly. During, or perhaps because of the protest, OOIDA increased the urgency of its campaign. The organization sent a call to action to its members, sent letters to all members of Congress and then sent another letter to House and Senate Leadership, filed a petition with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and issued numerous press releases and articles through its own in-house publication.
- The protest generated presidential interest in the application and enforcement of 49 CFR 371.3, the regulation that requires brokers to share load information, including the amount paid by the shipper, to all parties involved in the transaction who request it. Encouraged by broker organizations such as Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), brokers commonly ignore the requirements of the regulation by forcing carriers to waive their rights of access to the information in order to do business, or by making the information available under conditions that most carriers cannot meet. In the White House meeting, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was clear that the issue needs to be fixed.
- The protest woke the public as well as many government officials to the idea that small business trucking carriers are underrepresented when changes to regulations are discussed. As pointed out by United States Transportation Alliance (USTA) CEO Mike Landis, nearly 90% of all registered carriers have 10 or fewer trucks and are too small to join the industry giant American Trucking Associations (ATA). Yet, when changes are discussed, ATA often has a seat at the table — while small trucking business don’t.
- Brokers now know the spotlight is aimed squarely at them. The protesters acknowledge the free-market system and, except for a scant few, aren’t calling for limits on broker revenues. But the protests shined a light on those shadowy parts of the brokerage business, such as demanding large payments from customers while only spending a small percentage for the actual service performed. There are more arguments and, perhaps, litigation to come, but brokers are on notice that they are being watched and questioned.
- The protesters earned the admiration of many among the millions of truckers who weren’t at the protest with their display of unity and their perseverance. Many doubted they would get anything done. They were wrong. A group of people who, as Jeremy Johnson, administrator of the Facebook Group The Disrespected Trucker, said “couldn’t agree on a free cup of coffee” stood together with the Eastern European group, the Hispanic contingent, the Sikh business owners and the rest, a diverse group of ethnicities and genders. They weren’t sure who would speak for them, and demands varied from group to group, but they were determined to be heard.
So, while concrete results are still to come, the protest has achieved more than anyone expected it to. Wheels are turning at DOJ and FMCSA, under the watchful eye of President Trump and his staff. Voices have been heard.
More importantly, the protest has brought together more truckers than any in recent memory. While it’s doubtful that the number of trucks in Washington ever exceeded 200 at one time, many participants rotated in and out, trying to devote time to the cause while dealing with personal and family matters and maintaining at least a partial revenue stream for their businesses. Estimates range from 500 to 1,000 total truckers spending at least some time at the protest.
One group, The Disrespected Truckers, had less than 3,000 members prior to the protest. In less than three weeks, that number swelled to more than 9,000. The usual complaints about the business of trucking were replaced by discussion of the protest and its goals. Other Facebook groups have seen similar results. Even as the protest was winding down, some truckers were still on their way to Washington to join in.
The protesters know there are remaining issues to resolve, and the fight isn’t over. In trucking, there will always be more issues to resolve. If needed, one strong and growing group of owner-operators is ready to return to Washington to politely resume the fight.