Truckers' road gets rough
The nation's owner-operators have hit a storm of high diesel prices, cut loads and lower rates.
Published March 5, 2008
Trucker Robert Griffith is on the road three weeks out of four, pulling oversize loads like crane booms, railroad ties and air conditioning ducts. One of his biggest worries: How he'll find the money to buy his daughter a prom dress.
As the cost of diesel doubled over the past four years, his take-home pay has plummeted from $50,000 to $11,000 last year. He's literally burning money; he spent $64,000 on diesel in the past eight months. Since he canceled his satellite radio, he's on citizens band radio constantly (handle: Instigator) talking about what needs to change so truckers can survive.
"I had to learn to live totally different," said Griffith, 41, of Lebanon, Tenn.
No more $150 family outings to sushi. No more weekly washes for his Western Star 4900 EX truck. No more health insurance for him and his family.
"It hurts," he said. "I'm a man who's trying to make a living for my family and I'm not succeeding."
Trucking's owner-operators, the self-employed drivers who haul everything from Hummers to hay, are suffering. Many say they're running on the edge of bankruptcy, about to disappear unless they get help. While a wave of trucking failures might be invisible to consumers, when the economy rebounds, it would push up shipping rates, helping increase prices.
The housing downturn and decreased consumer spending have cut into loads; the extra trucking capacity is pushing down freight rates. Diesel prices, which are always higher in the winter, have hit such highs that Truckinginfo.com runs ads for thief-stopping fuel-tank locks.
Reposessor Nassau Asset Management repossessed 110 percent more trucks in 2007 than it did in 2006, according to president Edward Castagna.
About 9 percent of the nation's 3.4-million truck drivers are independent owner-operators, according to the Department of Labor. Without the independents, trucking will turn into a group of "regional and national oligopolies" that would send shipping prices higher when the economy improves, said John Saldanha, who teaches logistics at Ohio State University.
While independents struggle, the large public trucking companies seem to be on a different road. Their stocks have, for the most part, climbed since January. J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and YRC Worldwide Inc., with more than 10,000 truck tractors each, buy everything from fuel to tractors in bulk. Big companies buy thousands of gallons of diesel at a time on the commodities market, then store it; Griffith buys his at truck stop pumps, where prices increased 38 cents a gallon over two days last month.
Truckers, who felt unappreciated in the best of times, say they feel even more marginalized. Truckers say they want caps on diesel prices, or tax credits for truckers, and increased regulation for middlemen who broker truck loads.
Rumors of a nationwide truck strike are nearly annual, but an effort in January generated more talk than usual.
Illinois trucker Nanette Jenkins Rudd kept five trucks off the road the week of the strike.
"I pray that this strike is successful, so that we only have to stop rolling for a week - and not forever," she said.