The Carter administration moved yesterday on several fronts to try to end the increasingly violent nationwide strike by independent truckers.
In separate actions, the Department of Energy suspended a federal regulation giving farmers priority status in the purchase of diesel fuel, and the Federal Highway Administration urged governors in a number of states to consider lifting temporarily weight and length limits on trucks using their highways.
Although national strike leaders urged their followers to stay off the roads until they seek further concessions, there were indications that support for the shutdown was eroding among the roughly 100,000 independent truckers.
But food and fuel shipments remained at a virtual standstill in many parts of the country yesterday and the nationwide household goods moving industry was rapidly heading toward a shutdown.
"It's really been devastating," said American Movers Conference spokesman Bill Mansfield. In a telegram to President Carter, the AMC warned that the industry would be shut down by tomorrow. The group said that even if all its problems were cleared up today, it would take until November to straighten all the mess out."
In New England, 18 truckers were arrested yesterday morning after they had formed a barricade around the Chelsea, Mass., New England Produce Center, which supplies about 80 percent of the region's fresh fruit and produce.
The market was reopened later after the National Guard forced an opening through the 100-truck barricade.
In Rhode Island, Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy ordered state police armed with shotguns to escore 40 fuel tankers from the state's four gasoline terminals, which had been blockaded by truckers.
More than a million gallons of gasoline had been trapped in the terminals, leaving 150 of the state's gasoline stations dry. Getty Oil Co. responded to one shooting incident by equipping its trucks with bulletproof shields.
Four Rhode Island truck drivers were arrested after blocking I-95 in Providence for more than an hour, Rhode Island produce companies reported no deliveries of fruits and vegetables over the last several days, and more than 100,000 pounds of fish piled up for days along the docks until they were finally moved last night.
In Florida critical shortages of gasoline continued because of blockades around fuel depots. One tank truck making its way to a service station south of Miami attracted 25 cars. Shell Oil driver Al Jones said, "I feel like the Pied Piper," when the crowd cheered as he began filling the station's tanks.
Bert and Beatrice Ross of Lakeworth, Fla., waiting in a gas line before heading to an airport, were not as happy. Sitting over railroad tracks in their car, because they were hemmed in by other cars, they saw a train coming and scrambled out just in time to watch it demolish their auto.
But the situation began to ease as National Guardsmen drove the tanker truck convoys throughout the state, as well as some produce trucks.And two independent truckers groups scheduled meetings for this morning to vote on ending their strike.
In Louisiana, four trucks were hit by gunfire, disabling two of the 18-wheel rigs and inspiring the head of the company that owns the trucks to announce that "from now on, King Trucking Co. trucks will travel in convoys with armed escorts."
At the Port of New Orleans, which is being blockaded by truckers, the usual cotton shipment of between 10 and 20 truckloads each day has been cut to "maybe two trucks, maybe none," according to Charles Metz of Stratchan Shipping Co.
In California, very little produce is leaving the state, although intrastate freight hauling - not affected by the strike - is continuing virtually unabated.
White House domestic affairs adviser Stuart Eizenstat said in a briefing late yesterday he hoped that administration actions on several fronts, particularly the decision of the Interstate Commerce Commission earlier this week to pass through diesel fuel price increases from truckers to their customers, would cause the shutdown to end. He and press secretary Jody Powell called for an end to the violence that has plagued the highways for a week.
William Hill, chairman of the Independent Truckers Unity Coalition, called the White House actions steps "in the right direction." But he said he would still press for unlimited diesel supplies and either lower fuel prices or higher freight rates.
To meet the truckers' demands, the administration suspended Department of Energy Special Rule No. 9, which had given farmers all the diesel fuel they needed for spring planting. The rule would have remained in effect until July 31 without the suspension.
The action gives truckers more access to diesel supplies, and could result in lower prices at the pump because truck stops had, in some cases, been buying diesel fuel at higher "spot" market prices and charging more.
The administration decision to press some states for a 90-day suspension of weight and length rules still leaves ultimate authority in the hands of governors. It was not clear whether the governors would comply.
Carter said, however, he would not budge on a trucker request to raise speed limits to 65 miles an hour.
Contributing to this article were staff writers Edward Walsh and Dennis Kneale, and special Correspondents Fay Joyce, Francis Morarity, Beau Cutts, Stacy Jolna, Bruce DeSilva and John Pope .