Talk to me," said trucker Bob Mayhew. "I ain't no radical."
Mayhew, an independent truck driver operating out of his home in Alta Vista, Va., said he does not intend to join the drivers around the nation who are planning to strike beginning Jan. 31. But he is worried that what they do will still affect him.
"If they get violent," he said. "I'll park it."
If he parks his truck, that load of cooking oil he was carrying from Pittsburgh to Baltimore would go undelivered or, more likely, to one of the major trucking firms that have announced that they are going to drive, no matter what the independents do. No one knows how many truckers will strike.
Violence or the threat of it seems to be the major concern of independent truck drivers, both those who plan to strike and those who don't. Almost all of about 20 drivers interviewed at truck stops here and in Martinsburg, W.Va., this week said they were going to take "a wait-and-see attitude," as North Carolina driver L.D. Morgan put it.
The reason for the strike, or shutdown, as Independent Truckers Association President Mike Parkhurst prefers to call it, is ostensibly to protest the upcoming increases in taxes on heavy trucks. They were included in the recently passed highway construction bill that increased the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel by 5 cents a gallon effective April 1.
But interviews with many drivers indicate that the federal taxes are not as burdensome as the combined effects of a major recession, which has intensified price competition for less freight, and deregulation, which has made it easier for truckers to cut rates and serve new territory.
Driver Richard Beadle, of Dallas, interviewed at the Panhandle Truckstop in Martinsburg, said he strongly supports the walkout and will join it. "I'm not paying for my truck now, so I might as well park it," he said. "My truck payments alone are $1,900 a month, and I'm not making enough."
When will he come back to work?.
"Congress or somebody is going to have to offer us something, maybe a set price on mileage. Then how you do your job will determine whether you get it. I should get $1.20 a mile. I'm getting about 70 cents." In other words, guarantee the prices, just as the Interstate Commerce Commission did for years before the trucking deregulation act in 1980.
Nobody knows how many independent owner-operators there are. Estimates vary from 100,000 to 200,000. All it takes is a tractor and a license to go into business. Independents then either arrange their own loads (and rates) or, more commonly, lease their services by trip or for a period of time to a company. At least 25,000 companies are registered with the ICC.
Parkhurst claims that 75 percent of the independents will shut down. It is generally agreed by those interviewed in the industry and in the federal government that many drivers will sit it out, at least for a few days, to see what happens.
However, as driver Morgan said, "The trucking industry is not going to shut down forever. Many people got their homes tied down to the truck as security on a loan . That man's going to be hard to stop."
Furthermore, independents are poorly organized at best, and they are not a labor union. There is open hostility between Parkhurst's ITA and rival driver groups anxious to question whom he represents.
"I believe independents should not strike," said Marshall Siegel, president of a group called the Independent Truck Owner-Operators, "because it is economically unfeasible, and if there is a strike there will be violence."
The Teamsters, who could add substantial muscle to a shutdown effort, have declined to comment, although Parkhurst claims that some Teamster locals have promised to support picket lines if they are set up.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents the major trucking companies, has disavowed the shutdown. "We sympathize with the plight of the independents," said ATA President Bennett C. Whitlock Jr., "but we feel it is incumbent upon us to move this country's freight and we will not, therefore, be participating . . . . "
Even if there is a shutdown, there is so much excess capacity in the trucking business right now (some estimates reach 40 percent) that it may be difficult to notice the impact.
In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, operating revenues among trucking firms reporting to the ICC fell by 3.3 percent to $15.5 billion, while tons hauled declined by 11.4 percent. Further, net trucking company income declined by a startling 66.6 percent to $224.6 million, an obvious effect of both hard times and deregulation.
But the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, which strongly supports deregulation, said in a recent filing with the ICC that "the intense price discounting common in the trucking industry since 1980 is healthy competition, rather than predatory pricing or price discrimination."
Out at the truck stop, however, healthy competition has translated into lower salaries and less work. Donald Norris has a barbershop in the Breezewood truck stop, and the drivers he has talked to, he said, "are probably 10 to 1 in favor of a strike." The new taxes, he said, "will take about 50 percent of the profit, and they can't afford that."
Kenneth Britt, a driver, disagrees with the idea of the shutdown. "It won't do any good," he said. "They should go to Washington, they should strike against Washington. But frieght is low, taxes and fuel costs are high. There's no profit."
His relief driver, Gary Nance, who called himself "the Carolina Hobo" and dressed like one, said, "We ought to put every one of those congressmen in a truck for 12 months as an owner-operator. Then every time they blow a $340 tire on a $600 load they'd see how it feels."
Many truckers said they could live with the 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax that will also be assessed against truckers' diesel fuel on April 1. They are most unhappy about the so-called heavy vehicle use tax, which will jump in increments from the present $240 to $1,900 annually.
Because the tax will not be levied against major trucking firms until July 1, 1984, or against small independents until July 1, 1985, the industry has time to seek relief from Congress and the administration.
But the new taxes also have acted as a lightning rod for other trucker complaints, such as the 55 mph speed limit, continually rising state taxes on trucks and a plethora of paperwork each trucker must fill out for each state he passes through. In the meantime, there are fuel bills and repair bills and mortgages on rigs that can cost up to $100,000.
Mayhew just spent $8,000 for a major engine overhaul. "You've either got big repair bills or big payments," he said.
And is the heavy use tax worth striking over?
"I figure if you're in business and $2,000 will put you out, you're in trouble to start with," he said.