Amid record diesel prices, truckers demand surcharges

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Record diesel prices are prompting truckers from the Pacific Northwest to South Florida to agitate for relief in the form of fuel surcharges.

Tracy Lutton, who owns a log trucking company based in Aberdeen, Wash., is one of many feeling frustrated by negotiations with shippers.

“The timber companies have always told us what they would pay us, because we are a small, specialized industry,” Lutton said. “Now that the fuel price is getting up, we are getting to where we can’t run. They still want to pay us an amount that goes back to almost the 1980s.”

In protest, 200 members of the Northwest Log Truckers Co-Op parked their trucks Aug. 10. “We have to be careful because of antitrust laws and collusion, but everybody decided enough was enough, and everybody parked their trucks,” Lutton said.

The same day, on the other side of the continent, 652 owner-operators roared bobtail from Hialeah, Fla., to the Miami City Hall in a Teamsters-led protest demanding the surcharge they believe should rightfully come to them.

“What we were doing was attempting to raise awareness of the issue that drivers are paying these increased fuel charges without release,” said Mike Scott, president of Teamsters Local 174.

The long-awaited highway spending bill signed by President Bush this month did not include a mandatory fuel surcharge for truckload haulers, to be paid by shippers, as the Truckload Carriers Association and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association had hoped. The American Trucking Associations successfully fought to keep the surcharge out of the legislation.

As of Aug. 15, the West Coast average for a gallon of diesel fuel was $2.891, the Lower Atlantic average $2.499, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The national average on that same date was $2.567, a new record – and a 16-cent increase from the week before.

Many truckers, depending on their location, are paying more than that.

“Since we’ve broken the $3 barrier, first in Canada and now out in California, we are starting to see occasional prices above $3 a gallon in other states as well, still primarily in the West,” said Chris Lee, marketing director of ProMiles, which tracks fuel prices nationwide. “Today [Aug. 16] I am seeing 78 truck stops reporting a price over $3 a gallon, which is scary enough in itself, but close to 400 truck stops are reporting a price in excess of $2.75 a gallon.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around, Lee said: a surprisingly active hurricane season that has hampered oil refining in the Gulf of Mexico; early forecasts for a cold winter that have increased demand for heating oil; and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“What it boils down to is OPEC agreeing as a committee to cap the limit on how much oil will be exported in any given time frame,” Lee said. “The demand during that frame sets the price.”

Traditionally, Lee said, oil prices drop off in September. Angry truckers, however, are fighting to keep their wheels rolling in August.

Adding to Lutton’s frustrations is a Washington state tax increase of 9.5 cents a gallon that took effect July 1. A citizens’ initiative to repeal the gasoline tax increase is on the November ballot, but even if it passes, it won’t help diesel buyers.

The Washington Trucking Association will ask the Legislature for diesel tax relief if the gasoline repeal passes, said Norm Miller, the association’s vice president of membership.

In the meantime, only a few timber companies, for example Port Blakely Tree Farms, have been responsive to the co-op’s requests, Lutton said.

“Some are coming up and paying a surcharge that we like,” Lutton said. “We needed 22 percent. The worst problem is that the lumber trucks and the chip trucks and the freight trucks come out with 22 percent, and we are driving out with 10 to 11 percent.”

The issue is not just financial, Lutton said. “It’s about safety. If all our money is going into the tank, then there will be safety issues because we will not have money to take care of tires and brakes.”

The owner-operators in Miami delivered a letter to Miami City Commissioner Thomas Regalado. “He had agreed to serve as our emissary to the South Florida congressional delegation,” Scott said.

The letter once again requested what many truckers have sought for years – an act of Congress mandating that fuel surcharges be passed along to whoever pays for the fuel. As of Aug. 15, there had been no official response to the letter.

Steamship companies pay a fuel surcharge to the companies that move their cargo overland, but those companies do not pass the surcharges along to their leased owner-operators, Scott said.

Almost all the truckers participating in the drive were immigrants from Latin America, Scott said. “One of our arguments is that this immigrant population is being exploited in South Florida.”