Truckers strike in Tampa to protest fuel prices

04/02/08 Seán Kinane
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For the second day in a row, independent truckers were on strike in Tampa today protesting high diesel fuel prices and stagnant incomes. About 50 truck owner-operators demonstrated on Causeway Boulevard in front of the Port of Tampa.

David Santiago is a truck owner-operator. Santiago is striking because he wants the companies who hire independent truckers to pay them more.

“We just came together, we sat down and said, hey enough is enough, we can’t make it any more. I’m sure McDonalds doesn’t buy hamburgers for $2 and sell them for fifty cents and stay in business for as long as they have. Each one of these trucks is our individual business and if we’re not making any money, then we go out of business.”

Santiago said that each new truck costs between $80,000 and $200,000, but so many people have been forced out of the business that it’s possible to find used trucks for between $9,000 and $30,000. He said he barely breaks even on a typical 500-mile round trip between Tampa and Miami.

“If you get a dollar a mile, that’s $500, but you’re spending 80 cents a mile in fuel … and fuel is $4 a gallon, and you’re spending a 100 [gallons] to get to Miami, that’s $400 for that $500 trip. So you’re putting in your pocket $100 before you pay Uncle Sam, before you pay insurance, and before you put any food on the table for your family.”

Among the striking truckers, opinions were mixed about who deserves primary blame for their economic crunch. Some blamed profiteering oil companies for the high price of fuel. Some blamed the U.S. government for not releasing strategic oil reserves or for requiring energy companies to focus on cleaner fuels.

Others, like Greg Hayden, blamed the shipping companies who contract owner-operator truckers, but don’t pay them enough. Hayden has a steady trucking route between Tampa and Miami five nights a week, but he demonstrated in solidarity with the striking independent truckers. He says because of high diesel costs, companies charge a fuel surcharge to customers, but because of the greed of brokers or shippers, the truckers never see that fuel surcharge.

“Everybody out here wants to give a service. And this is what we’re in, we’re in the service industry. Why these people can’t see that, these brokers and the shippers can’t see that, it’s beyond me. It all has to come down to this. Somebody has to put their foot down and strike and now look what’s happening; now the freight’s not moving. To get the word out, I wish that people would give the fuel surcharges to the guys, see what they can do about the fuel prices, raise the freight rates and treat us with respect.”

Unlike most of the striking truckers in Tampa, Hayden belongs to the Teamsters Union Local 317 out of Syracuse, New York. He is also is a member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which he criticizes for not supporting the current strike of independent truck drivers.

“I’ve called them several times for help and haven’t gotten any help. I wish they would support the truckers and not take a neutral stand on this, take a positive stand whether they think it’s right or wrong, this is what owner-operator association stands for.”

Leo Cevera owns and operates a truck. He hauls containers from the Port of Tampa to various cities in Florida and Georgia. Those containers have everything from food to clothing to scrap metal. He said that finances are so difficult that a lot of people are selling their trucks.

The strike in Tampa was one segment of a loosely organized nationwide strike that included trucker slowdowns on such highways as the New Jersey Turnpike on Tuesday. Also that day, executives from the five largest U.S. oil companies appeared before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., to explain why fuel prices are so high despite their combined $123 billion in profits last year.

Independent trucker Alex Hernandez said that high fuel prices are affecting everyone, but they are hitting truckers the hardest.

“The prices of fuel are going up and it’s affecting the produce, it’s affecting the whole market out there. The public doesn’t know why it’s going up. Well, it’s going up because the cost of moving the stuff and producing the stuff is going up. But the bottom line is the trucker and the trucker is not getting that increase that people are seeing at the markets.”

Miguel Engativa Jr. makes trucking runs out of the Port of Tampa and the nearby CSX rail yard. He said the money he earns is not enough to maintain the truck he owns. Engativa delivers containers to cities around Florida or around the Tampa area.

Independent truck owner-operator Chris Reyes said that a nationwide trucking strike might be inevitable, simply because of the economics.

“What’s happening now is people are doing it voluntarily, but if this continues like this, this is just going to happen automatically because people just aren’t going to be able to run their trucks at all. So this is just a preface to something that’s completely inevitable. People are going to have to shut down whether they want to or not, whether they support it or not, it’s just going to happen without any organization, without anybody backing it up, it’s just something that’s going to happen all by itself.”

The independent truckers will continue their strike protesting high fuel prices and stagnant wages Thursday morning on Causeway Boulevard at 22nd Street in Tampa.

Photo credit: Seán Kinane/WMNF

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