The action was one of many across North America by independent and contract truck drivers whose standards of living are being devastated. Many have been forced to simply park their trucks, unable to break even on their work.
As the truckers entered the city they were met with applause and thumbs up by many working people, including those who had to wait in their cars for long periods at intersections blocked by the passing trucks.
"There is no fuel shortage," said Rich Davie, of Summerville, Pennsylvania. "I know they've got fuel stored in Pennsylvania." Davie owns five trucks but says he can't afford to operate them all. "I went from making $500 a week to $100 per week per truck. I'm here because I want to see the [pay] rates raised."
At a brief rally held on the capitol grounds speeches were given by representatives of independent truck drivers' organizations. Afterwards the microphone was opened up to any driver who wanted to speak. One truck driver from Michigan received applause when he told the crowd, "Fuel prices are only part of the problem. The answer is in the [pay] rates. We need a 50 percent increase. That would allow drivers to earn a decent living working within the regulations on hours so they wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel, and thereby enhance safety." He added truckers needed a cost of living raise at least every five years.
"This [protest] should have been done years ago," commented Lloyd Moore, a trucker who hauls steel for Bethlehem Steel Corp. A contract driver from Atlanta, Craig Clark, said he heard about the protest on the radio after he dropped off his shipment in Baltimore and decided to join in. "I'm being affected by the higher fuel prices, because although the company pays for the fuel they lowered my wages."
As the convoy went through the Black community in downtown Charleston and then along the highway, residents and workers passing by waved, blew their horns, and put their fists in the air in solidarity.
"We need some kind of representation," said Robert Bates at a rally before the caravan. "We want to unionize--that's the only route left." Bates, a port truck driver for 23 years, is the president of the United Container Movers Association of Charleston (UCMA).
The drivers want to affiliate with the Teamsters union. But the government and shipping companies claim owner-operators are "independent contractors." Bates argued, "We're mislabled employees" and have a right to join together in a union.
Drivers were eager to explain the issues in their fight. "Fuel prices and anything associated with trucks continues to rise, but the wages of a truck driver stay dirt cheap. You can't afford to feed your family," said Arnold Heywood.
The price of diesel fuel has shot up by as much as 60 percent in the last month, but drivers have received at best a surcharge from the companies they work for of just 5-10 percent to compensate. Bill Saab, who hauls containers between the rail yards and ports, said his monthly fuel bill has risen by $300.
"This is historic," said Bates, referring to the day's protests nationwide. "It's the dawn of a new era for truckers."
Esther and Pedro Estrada, activists in the organization Support Trucking Group, explained in an interview, "Although promises were made by some of the shipping bosses on Friday, such as a 15 percent rate increase per trip, nothing was put in writing, and by Monday, they had already begun to back down, saying that customers would not want to pay more, and that it would be bad for business."
Several hundred dump truck drivers, who are independent owner-operators, are still conducting their walkout, according to the Estradas.
That morning U.S. secretary of energy William Richardson conducted a "Northeast Heating Oil Summit" at Faneuil Hall. Joining the secretary on a panel to discuss why home heating oil prices skyrocketed were the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, four members of Congress, oil industry representatives, and consumer advocates. George Cashman, president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston and director of the Teamsters Port Division, also spoke. Seventy-five percent of the homes that are heated by oil in the United States. are on the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Virginia. Heating oil prices reached record highs shortly after a cold snap in December. Responding to a proposal to set up a reserve of heating oil for New England to control big swings in the supply in the region, a speaker from Cargill Industry explained, "By setting up a government cartel, you will take the incentive out of shipping the product."
The representative from Morgan Stanley said the run-up in prices was a result of the "global market" where "the highest bidder gets the oil." He said OPEC is the problem and that "the Saudis are sitting on extra barrels." He told Richardson, "you must do something about it," and warned that Saddam Hussein will acquire renewed influence in the world with Iraqi oil.
The spokesperson from the New England Gas Association pointed out heating oil prices are coming down. Currently it is $1.56 a gallon, down from the $2.04 at the beginning of the month, but up from last year's 79 cents. He said, encouragingly, "The free market system is working."
A spokesperson for the Plymouth Council on Aging said, "People are having to choose between food, medicine or fuel."
"Between 80 and 90 percent of this country's productivity travels by truck and we will bring the entire economy to a halt if necessary to get what we want," said Oshawa trucker Paul Bourgeois at a meeting of 1,000 angry truckers February 20.
In Ontario the protest is being organized by the National Truck Association, formed three weeks ago by a group of independent truck drivers. The truckers vowed to keep their rigs at home till the government meets their demands. They have organized huge slow-moving convoys on the highways around Toronto, tying up traffic.
Three hundred truckers used their 18-wheelers to blockade the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick boundary and voted to defy an interim court injunction initiated by the Nova Scotia government against the blockade. The protest stretched for four kilometers.
"The spontaneous protest spread to Newfoundland where a dozen rigs were parked at a weigh station outside St. John's. In Quebec about 70 trucks blockaded lanes on two highways and a provincial road near the Ontario border.
Mary Martin is a member of the International Association of Machinists; Sam Manuel belongs to the United Transportation Union; Ted Leonard is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees; John Steele is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 175. Andrea Morell, a member of the UTU, contributed to this article.
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