At a lunch truck near the Long Beach port, I talked to a driver who identified himself only as Ramon. His truck was built in 1989. Black smoke huffed from its exhaust pipe, and most of its tires had little tread left. Some were bald. “I guess I should get new ones, eh?” he said with a smile and a shrug. “But they cost $300 apiece. I don’t have the money yet.”
Another driver told me his state fees had risen threefold in the last year, for reasons he didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fight.
“The trucking companies we work for don’t see us like human beings,” said Armestides Gomez, a driver who had been stretching his legs, lifting them one at a time up on his tires. “We don’t get enough money. We don’t get worker’s compensation. We don’t get disability, and we’re not united.”
“Big fat first quarter,” read the headline of an April 20 story in Fleet Owner magazine, a trade publication catering to executives and managers of commercial trucking fleets. “Truckload giant Werner Enterprises saw its profit increase 11 percent; Heartland Express said its net income increased 30.8 percent; Knight Transportation Inc. announced its net income increased 24.1 percent.”
At the end of the day, the state air board adopted its emissions reduction plan. Toothless as it is — the word “mandatory” comes up only twice in close to 200 pages — it does encourage subsidies for those truckers “who lack the resources” to retire their old trucks. It estimates the cost at $1 billion. Armando Gonzalez says fewer drivers would fall into that category if they could deal directly with the shipping lines. “What has to take place is that we independents obtain our own contracts from the shippers direct instead of going through the broker who isn’t passing it on,” he says.
On April 30 two years ago, Gonzalez was among the truckers who jackknifed his big rig on the 5 freeway, blocking traffic to protest rising fuel costs and declining fees. In the wake of that action, he says he saw fuel prices drop and many truckers negotiate raises. But despite reports to the contrary, he has called for truckers to support the immigrant workers’ strike on May 1 only by marching in support of immigrant rights. “Later on, when things get more settled with the immigration issue,” he says, “we’re going to carry a big strike against oil companies.” I wondered if he was worried about getting fired for his activism.
“You mean about not getting loads? No. Sometimes they say, ‘If you go out we’ll fire you.’ They’ll threaten to fire you if you miss a day. But there’s already a shortage of truckers, so they need us to work. If they fire us, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”