The problem with a grass-roots movement is often determining which blade of “grass” will speak for the group. That’s been a visible issue with the small trucking business protest, now in its third week in Washington. A review of the signs posted on the 100 or so parked trucks along Constitution Avenue reveals demands for respect; broker investigation, regulation or transparency; elimination of electronic logging devices (ELDs); repeal of hours-of-service (HOS) regulations; and a few other causes thrown in for good measure.
Reading through thousands of social-media comments by protesters and supporters only muddies the water further. One can imagine a make-believe scenario where the proverbial genie appears to the protesters to grant them three wishes … and sets off a weeklong argument about what those wishes should be.
Enter the United States Transportation Alliance (ustransportationalliance.org). Conceived in the notion that the organizations with lobbying power in government exist to serve everyone except small business truckers, USTA, a 501c6 nonprofit, gives voice to the “little guy.” The hundreds of “little guys” protesting in Washington have need for such a voice.
As Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff addressed an assembled group of protesters on May 14, he asked, “So, you like Mike?” The crowd erupted in cheering and applause. They were cheering Michael Landis, CEO and founder of USTA. No vote was taken to elect him spokesperson, but the trust he has garnered among the protesters makes him an obvious choice.
In an exclusive interview with The Trucker, USTA’s president and co-founder Kevin Steichen, along with Ingrid Brown, chairperson of the organization’s corporate relations and safety education, spoke about the protest, the FMCSA’s recent final ruling on HOS regulations, and the purpose of USTA.
The FMCSA ruling wasn’t entirely a surprise.
“We’re working hand in hand with the FMCSA,” Steichen said. “We attend meetings with them monthly.”
Although USTA has input into FMCSA decisions, the organization must wait for the final outcome, just like everyone else.
Steichen advised patience with the new rules.
“Third-party ‘interpretation’ sucks,” he said.” That’s why we want to read every work and then read it again, so that when we do comment, we’re commenting on facts and not what someone thinks.”
Reading the 232-page ruling takes time and could result in communication with the FMCSA for explanation of some of the provisions included.
The latest HOS revision is only one of the things the USTA board has been working on.
“We are partners and stakeholders in the ‘Our Roads, Our Safety’ campaign at FMCSA,” Brown said. “They brought us in around April of last year and we’ve been a part of it ever since.”
More recently, USTA became concerned about personal protective equipment not being available to most truck drivers.
“USTA was instrumental in putting together the $75,000 in PPE that is being distributed to drivers, free,” Brown said. “Now we’re working on the next $50,000.”
While progress on individual issues is important, USTA’s primary mission is to represent the driver. There are no products or services, save for a hat or T-shirt, to sell to the organization’s membership. Membership dues and donations don’t come close to covering the costs of travel, lodging, food, parking and other expenses incurred on each trip to Washington to meet with lawmakers or the FMCSA.
“Being that they don’t drive (a truck), sometimes they don’t understand what we do. We don’t just throw emails at them; we sit at the table and discuss the issues. That’s who we are,” Brown explained.
“It can be frustrating to work with FMCSA, but I’ve been doing it for two years,” Steichen added. “We have a love-hate relationship with those guys, but we make it work. Our role is to bridge the gap between FMCSA and the drivers in our industry.”
Persistence has been key to the organization’s success in gaining a seat at the table. Larger organizations such as American Trucking Associations, Truckload Carriers Association and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have more available funding and can hire representatives in Washington to speak for them. USTA members must park their trucks, shutting down their own businesses, in order to be present at those meetings.
Patience helps too, since everyone at the table comes from a different place.
“With frustration comes irrational action,” Steichen said. “You’ve got to look into the future when you decide what you’re going to do.”
Steichen has learned that demanding too much at once can damage the chances of a future win, as well as the relationships needed to gain agreements in the future.
“We don’t always agree, but that’s life,” Brown added.
Despite living in different areas of the country and spending time on the road, the team makes every attempt to present a united front.
“We spend hours on the phone with each other, meeting to decide our position on every issue before we take it to the FMCSA,” Steichen said. “When we do issue a statement of position about something, we validify it with FMCSA so that we can give our membership a solid, confident answer.”
Between meetings, the group stays in contact with FMCSA management, including Joseph DeLorenzo, director of the office of enforcement and compliance, and Bill Mahorney, chief of the enforcement division.
“They do listen,” Brown said. “I sent an email with a question on Saturday and had a response in 17 minutes. It’s not that I’m important or anything; they are responsive to questions and concerns.”
The USTA group was initially undecided about joining the Washington protest, wondering if the action might harm the group’s efforts to communicate directly with the FMCSA and other Washington contacts. It didn’t take long to realize that a common voice was needed if the protest was to be effective, and CEO Landis headed for the nation’s capital. While other groups can be credited with organizing the protest, USTA could well be the organization that provides a key to ending it.
Questions about USTA can be addressed to [email protected].
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.