Fearing that the increasingly violent independent truckers strike has the "potential to be a major nationwide crisis," the White House yesterday took steps to try to convince occurring on the nation's highways."
White House aide Stuart Eizenstat told reporters that President Carter asked him late Friday to set up a federal interagency task force to look into the demands of the more than 100,000 independent truck owner-operators across the country. Many of them have taken their trucks off the road to protest increasing fuel costs, the continuation of the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, and costly and conflicting government regulations.
Following a meeting with representatives of the seven federal agencies that will serve on the task force Eizenstat met with five independent truckers to discuss possible administration efforts that could ease their problems.
Eizenstat said he began his meeting with the truckers, by explaining "that the administration could not and did not condone the violence and disruption to interstate commerce that was occuring on the nations highways."
But violence connected with the truckers' shutdown continued over the weekend. Tractor-trailer rigs blocked truck-stop fuel pumps across the country, while gunfire shattered windshields in Missouri, Kansas and Alabama. Arson was reported in Tennessee and Missouri, and a bomb threat was called in at one Virginia truck stop.
Eizenstat said the Justice Department would make an announcement Monday on enforcement actions that will be taken to end strike-related violence. He hinted that the announcement would probably include a call for local law enforcement officials to act expenditiously, coupled with further efforts of the Justice Department to find and act upon any federal violations.
A Justice Department representative joined representatives of the Labor, Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Transportation departments and the Interstate Commerce Commission on the new White House trucking task force, Eizenstat said.
Eizenstat said the truckers who attended the White House session were "pleased" with Friday's announcement that the ICC was ordering immediate no-red-tape increases of 5.6 percent in payments from regulated carriers to independent truckers to cover increased fuel costs.
Eizenstat and ICC chairman Dan O'Neal told the truckers the ICC will continue to monitor increasing diesel fuel costs, and every Tuesday will announce the new diesel price index, and the resulting automatic increase in payments by carriers to truckers based on that index.
Other truckers, not at the White House meeting, were less pleased with the ICC offering.
"It's nothing, it's laughable, it's ridiculous, it's comical," said L. D. Lawson, a spokesman for an independent truckers' office in Montgomery, Ala. Mike Parkhurst president of 30,000-member Independent Truckers Association, called the offer "crumbs off the table."
Eizenstat listed some other demands raised by the truckers at the White House meeting - demands that he said the White House would "consider" but had made "no promises" about"
Increased availability of fuel. The truckers called for 100 percent allocation of diesel fuel to truck stops, and an action similar to Special Rule 9, a White House move a few weeks ago to give farmers 100 percent allocation of diesel fuel - diverted from other areas - to get out the spring planting. Eizenstat said he acknowledged that Special Rule 9, which is slated to expire on July 31, "may have diverted some diesel fuel that could have gone to truckers," but, he added the he "told them that you can't take a shortage and give everyone 100 percent."
The truckers asked the White House to urge large regulated carriers to fuel their trucks at their own terminals, thus freeing highway truck stops for independents.
All of the truckers asked for changes in federal and state regulations that they insisted hamper their operations. They cited the 55-mph speed limit, and also urged the White House to help alleviate problems caused by differing state regulations.
They pointed out, for example, that 10 Delta area and Midwest states - known as the "Iron Curtain" to truckers - have weight limits of about 73,000 pounds for trucks, while almost all other states allow them to carry up to 80,000 pounds. Larger loads, the truckers contend, are more fuel efficient.
They also noted that several eastern states have length limits shorter than the 60 feet most other states allow. In both cases, the truckers said, efficiency benefits outweigh the safety reasons for imposing such limits.