Baltimore's independent truckers may boycott container piers

Many complain pay is less than it was 20 years ago

August 15, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

It takes a certain kind of person to be an independent truck driver. Mostly, they have to be independent -- working odd hours far from home, keeping budgets and schedules like a small-business owner, all from behind the wheel of a $100,000 rolling office.

But these days, thanks to the fiery competition and paper-thin profits of the container cargo trade, independent truckers also have to work for less money than they made 10, sometimes 20 years ago.

Now a group of drivers in Baltimore has decided that it can't be independent anymore.

Frustrated by low pay and long delays at the piers, a month-old organization of truck drivers is threatening to boycott the city's container-cargo terminals beginning Sept. 1. Members want more pay or quicker processing at the docks, and threaten to shut down the piers to get it.

Port officials have taken notice, because a successful boycott could be felt as far from the waterfront as department store shelves, with goods sitting in marine terminals and no one to haul them. A prolonged action could chase shipping lines away to competing cities, draining business from a port already struggling to keep what it has.

But while independent truckers and small companies have the means to choke commerce through the port -- they handle most of the 300,000 cargo boxes moved through the terminals each year -- port officials are watching and wondering whether they have the will.

Combined, truck drivers are a significant link in the chain of freight transportation. But these are independent truck drivers, unaccustomed to cooperating on such a scale.

"If every trucker in the port agreed to do it, that could create big backlogs everywhere and really cause some problems," said Maurice Byan, head of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents the city's marine terminal companies.

"But I don't think you can expect every trucker to do it."

Behind the effort to organize the truckers is Bill Dickens, a 45-year-old truck driver from Dundalk. He headed a group of United Auto Workers drivers in the early 1990s and used to chain the yard shut until everyone got paid. They always did.

Organized two rallies

Last month, he started handing out fliers at the city's piers and organized two Saturday afternoon rallies across from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, attracting about 150 drivers both times. He and his wife printed T-shirts, gathered signatures and collected dues of $25 per member.

Today, Dickens has a fledgling organization called the Container and Rail Haulers of America, with about 300 drivers on its rolls. Most of them are independent "owner/operators" who use their own trucks, but several company-paid drivers have joined, too.

"I don't care what kind of product it is, whether it's moving on a ship or on a train, at one time or another it's going on a semi," said Dickens.

"So don't believe anybody who tells you we can't shut the piers down. We'll do it," he added. "We don't care if those ships sit out there until their bottoms rust out and they sink in the harbor. It's time to pay the piper."

The drivers in Dickens' group are paid one lump sum each time they haul a container. Most of them own their trucks and work with a trucking company that schedules loads for them, and they pay for their fuel, maintenance and tolls.

Members say they are spending three hours or more in the city's marine terminals waiting for their cargo containers to be ready to haul away. That leaves them only enough time to haul two or three a day, instead of the four or five they need to turn a profit.

The truckers don't own the chassis -- the back part of a tractor-trailer on which a box is mounted. The steamship lines generally do. But many steamship lines don't have enough chassis, and the terminal might not have enough longshoremen to mount and repair them.

Truck drivers say they typically must retrieve a chassis, get an empty container removed from it, take the chassis in for new tires or repairs, then wait in line to get their cargo.

"None of that work is my job, and I'm not getting paid for it," said Finley C. "Chuck" Martin III, an owner/operator from Essex. "If my wheels aren't turning, I'm not making any money."

And the truckers aren't making as much money even when they are working. Dickens said he takes home about $650 a week -- the same wages he made when he started in the trucking business in 1976.

The truckers are not alone. Steamship lines, freight-forwarding companies -- almost the entire ocean-freight business is fighting to eke out a profit. But the truck drivers, without any collective representation, have been an easy place to cut costs.

`We're at the bottom'

"We're at the bottom of the food chain -- the scum of the earth, as far as some people think," said Dickens. "I don't know how it ever got that way, but we need to change it."

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