"Welcome to Washington, truckers," came the greeting on the CB from a base station as a convoy of 200 to 300 trucks rolled into Washington, DC, yesterday to demonstrate over the fuel price crisis. One of the participants hollered via the CB, "Clinton, we know you're here."
Truckers were in a jubilant mood rolling into the city. Most overpasses over the convoy route held waving well-wishers. As the trucks turned east onto U.S. 50, people along the route grew to crowds waving, giving thumbs up, and pumping their arms in the traditional air horn salute. "Go Get Them" read one sign held up by spectators.
"It's like we won the Super Bowl" crowed one driver over the radio. "After this I'm going to Disneyland."
I rode with John Medaglia, founder of the Mid-Atlantic Owner-Operators Assn. TV and radio stations covered the convoy's launch. "Good Morning America"'s Dan Dahler interviewed John's son John Jr. and his wife Jacquie at the convoy's staging location in New Jersey.
"If fuel prices are so high, why are you driving your truck to Washington?" asked one reporter. Replied Medaglia, "It will cost a lot more if we don't do it today."
Participating truckers came from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, with a smattering from outside the Northeast. Truckers from states as far away as Texas, Minnesota and Kansas dropped their trailers and followed the convoy. Other truckers just came in off the road to be part of the protest.
The skyrocketing fuel prices were the main complaint, with speakers demanding the government release federal oil reserves and offer truckers a break in fuel taxes until prices come down. But fuel prices were only the straw that broke the camel's back, with speakers also talking about low rates, toll increases and other issues.
"The carriers don't see that cutting the rates is putting us out of business," said one driver.
National and international press swarmed onto convoy members as they emerged from their rigs along the parking area on Louisiana Avenue. Everywhere were TV cameras, photographers, and reporters poking microphones into truckers' faces. One driver holding up a sign "Will Work for Fuel" attracted a large number of media photographers.
Many of the drivers said they are about to lose their jobs, their carriers ready to go under. Owner-operators said they can't pay their bills. There was desperation, discouragement, anger. Younger truckers were talking about giving up and moving on to a business where they could at least bank on a modest profit, something they weren't getting now.
Not everyone was pessimistic. A cluster of container haulers out of Baltimore said, "Look, a month ago, we demonstrated. Now we're here. Yeah, we think it will make a difference."
Doug Sorantino, Sorantino Enterprises, an aggregate hauler out of Bridgeton, NJ, was one of several speakers on the steps of the nation's capitol addressing truckers' concerns. He was joined by Tom Pokrywka, president of the National Owner-Operators Trucking Assn.
"Someone must be held accountable for ruining our lives," said Sorantino, who called for legislation that would create regional oil reserves that could be released to cushion future rice spikes.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a ponytailed, CDL licensed lawmaker in a cowboy-cut suit, was the only legislator to speak to the crowd. He acknowledged the drivers' problems, noting that "if the rigs stop, the nation stops." He suggested reducing the federal excise tax and opening the oil reserve, but noted that these are short-term fixes until the nation reduces its dependence on foreign oil. He urged the truckers to get involved in the political process. "You have nine months until the next election. You ought to put all the candidates on record on what they will do for American trucking."
Other legislators, while they did not speak, expressed concern to the Associated Press about the truckers' struggle. Senat Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, said he was "very sympathetic" to the truckers' plight. "I think they make a point," he said. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-NJ, has said he would introduce legislation proposing a six-month suspension of the 24-cent-a-gallon federal fuel tax on diesel, but a White House spokesman said that was "not a viable option."
Coming home last night, the mood in the truck I was riding in was somber. Both father and son are now seriously considering selling their trucks and moving on. John senior handed me a spreadsheet before our good-byes. It demonstrates in dollars and cents how his costs have escalated over the years but his income has remained stagnant, profit negligible.
His group had staged a work stoppage which lead to a modest 10% increase in hauling steel in the northeast, with 3% of that going right back to the carrier. Loads going west will only go up 2%.
Heading into Washington yesterday morning, Medaglia's wife Pat noted that the convoy was an example of "America's democracy at work," but returning last night, the conversation in Medaglia's Peterbilt was that America is no more likely to help the independent trucker than it did the independent farmers.
Editor's Note: Washington Editor Oliver Patton contributed to this story. Look for more on the convoy, including photos, in the April issue of RoadSTAR.