“Being in trucking today is like playing Russian roulette. You‘re just spinning the wheel and waiting to see what happens.” -Charlie Claburn, northeast director for Truckers & Citizens United
So I‘m crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at a bleary 5 a.m. the other day, barreling through the inky darkness towards FedEx Field in Landover, Md., home of the Washington Redskins football team.
That was the rallying point for a convoy formed by the group “Truckers & Citizens United” to drive downtown around the U.S. Capitol. They sought not only to speak out about the negative impact of high diesel prices, but also address a range of economic issues, from rampant commodity speculation in the oil markets to the tangled web of rules and regulations that are strangling small truckers across the country.
[Below is a short video of the rally in the hours before it left for the U.S. Capitol]
Arriving at the designated parking lot on the east side of the stadium, I wondered if anyone would be awake. Boy, did THAT turn out to be one of my stupider thoughts for the day.
[Media were out in force filming the trucker rally.]
Three television news crews were already set up and filming interviews, with almost all the participating truckers (some 14 brought their rigs to D.C.) up and about, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, trading laughs, commiserating about shared burdens and grief.
Daniel James “D.J.” Brown is a prime example. A dyed-in-the-wool trucker with 30 years under his belt, D.J. got dealt a heavy blow several weeks back. With his ailing mother in Kentucky just days away from her death, he asked his dispatcher for a load going her way. Instead, he found himself stuck at a dock in Dallas for five hours by a grumpy shipper, then held up in Little Rock, Ark., unable to get to his mom -- with his dispatcher totally unsympathetic to his situation. In the end, D.J.‘s mom died on a Saturday morning without him. He couldn‘t get to her bedside until that night.
[The indefatigable D.J. Brown.]
“You know, driving a truck for me is a lifelong dream. I wanted to drive a truck since I was four or five years old. How many people do you know that get to live out their dreams? But now my dream is choking me out,” D.J. told me. “When my kids were growing up [he has two daughters] I‘d be out on the road five days and then back home for five days. Now, I‘m gone two or three months then home only two or three days. That‘s not enough time to see my grandkids.”
That‘s why he joined the protest convoy - deadheading from Arkansas on his own dime at the wheel of his long hood Peterbilt 379. “I‘m not over the coffee pot complaining, as my mom used to say - I‘m here trying to make a difference,” he told me. “We need to do something. We need to bring the cost of fuel down to where truck drivers can make a living, not just exist. And it‘s not just us - look at what will happen to people this winter. They‘ll have to choose between heating their homes and eating or taking their medicines to stay well.”
The general public‘s sheer ignorance about trucking motivated owner-operator Dennis Zylvitis and his wife Debbie to join the convoy. An owner-operator out of Midlothian, Ill. (with the awesome company name “Blondestar LLC”), Dennis told me he used to do all right, making decent money at the helm of his W900 Kenworth. But when fuel costs climbed to over $5 a gallon that all changed in a hurry. “It‘s killing us,” he said.
[Dennis Zylvitis and his wife Debbie -- a retired 25-year veteran homicide detective from Chicago's police force -- share a moment with their beloved French bulldog Jack.]
More infuriating to him, however, is the public‘s perception of trucks and truckers. “Trucks move everything and if we go under, people will really hurt,” he stressed to me. “People also don‘t know their history. The highways weren‘t built for cars - they were built to move freight and military goods.”
What‘s even more frustrating to truckers like Billy Sutton, an owner-operator from Batavia, N.Y., is that you can do everything right from a fuel economy, business, safety, and freight delivery perspective - yet still go broke.
[The unstoppable Billy Sutton.]
“There‘s something wrong about that,” Sutton told me. A 26-year trucking veteran that operates under the wry name “BS Express,” he knows first hand how quickly the world can turn upside down for carriers and independents alike these days. For 16 years, he worked for Path Truck Lines of Dunkirk, N.Y., hauling oversized loads. When Path shut down earlier this year, though, Sutton suddenly found himself unemployed - and owed $12,000 by his former employer to boot.
Forced to go out and become a full-fledged owner-operator - spending $1,350 on new plates alone, while forking over more cash for N.Y. state‘s unique trucking insurance package, which includes a barcoded sticker - Sutton spent five weeks with no income waiting to be hired on by a new company, even fronting the money for fuel to get his first loads moving. Luckily, he finally got paid his $12,000, but it wasn‘t a happy time for him.
“It‘s so not easy to be in this business,” he told me. “Freight is moving seven days a week, 365 days a year and you have to follow the freight to make a living, like chasing a carrot just out of reach on a stick.”
To save up money to pay for the fuel he needed to attend the D.C. rally, Sutton worked for a solid month on the road - passing within a 100 miles of his home on occasion, yet unable to get there without a load to cover the cost of fuel. “That‘s just frustrating on many levels,” he said.
Even more so is the way truckers are treated. “The Department of Labor classifies us as ‘unskilled workers,‘ even though we need a license, are required to go to trucking school now, and must operate very complex equipment,” Sutton pointed out. “Do you know how that makes truckers feel, irrespective of the paycheck issue? A kid working at McDonald‘s can get paid more, as they get mandatory wage increases for overtime and extra work. We don‘t.”
Charlie Claburn - northeast director for Truckers & Citizens United and an owner-operator himself out of Hudson Falls, N.Y. - told me these are just of the issues his group is working to resolve, along with many others that not only plague trucking but U.S. society at large.
[The one and only Charlie Claburn, who lacks a CB handle of all things, if you can believe it.]
“We want to stop oil speculation; we want regulations that work; we want affordable truck insurance that doesn‘t eat up weekly settlements; and we want time with our families,” Claburn said - noting that it came as a shock to his own family, one boy and two girls, when he hit the road for three and half weeks straight this summer. “More importantly, though, we want the American dream back.”
Claburn grew up on a dairy farm and became a dairy farmer himself - his whole family treating his cattle like pets - until spending $18 per hundredweight to make milk didn‘t equate with the $16 per hundredweight the market paid him. He turned to trucking in 2000, figured it would be an easy way for him to make a living, since he‘d operated heavy equipment and trucks his whole life. “But I found out this industry was harder and more cutthroat than farming ever was,” Claburn said.
“But why is that? For example, why do we deal with fuel surcharges and all this other nonsense? Why can‘t we get paid a decent wage that covers all of this and let‘s us have a decent life? Why are we being dunned for higher insurance premiums when the government is bailing those same insurance carriers out for their bad investments?” he asks.
Then there‘s the more personal impact. “I can‘t take my wife out to dinner and a movie anymore - we eat McDonald‘s in front of the television. My kids are super-smart, but will we be able to afford college with what we make?” Claburn wonders. “I‘ll be OK - my wife works at a bank, so even if I fail in trucking we‘ll be able to support our family. But most truckers don‘t have that fall back. This is their one and only livelihood. And the way things are going now is not good for anyone anymore.”