Yesterday, the contentious struggle between American Trucking Associations and its "business enterprise" known as The Maintenance Council ended. The ATA Executive Committee unanimously approved a plan that would exempt TMC from provisions of a restructuring plan adopted by ATA in 1998. No other ATA council or affiliated conference has been granted such exemption.
ATA's restructuring plan would have placed a prerequisite on membership in TMC. To become an individual member of TMC, the company employing the person would first have to be a member of both ATA and an affiliated state trucking association. That would place a huge
financial burden on companies, and most
simply couldn't afford it. This plan was to
take effect next January. TMC and ATA have been at odds since the plan was first announced two years ago.
TMC members, fiercely protective of their
organization and its limited independence, said no from the get go.
And some voted with their feet. Over the
last two years, TMC took an unprecedented nose dive. Talk of forming a new TMC independent of ATA was rampant. But everyone recognized that as a genuine lose/lose solution.
With talk of defection in the air, ATA was
under pressure. No other council has TMC's financial clout. Already strapped for cash, how would ATA replace the over $2 million annual contribution made by TMC if the whole membership walked, either to an newly formed TMC or to an existing technical society? On the other hand, TMC members would have to walk away from the centerpiece of their success,
their Recommended Maintenance Practices Manual, a body of stellar technical papers and recommendations accumulated over the group's 44-year history. ATA owns the copyright to all TMC materials.
There was never any solution other than
compromise. To it's great credit, the TMC
leadership group was the one that offered
the compromise plan. In a nutshell, it
sidestepped the whole concept of "membership" by simply abolishing the status of TMC membership. Instead, people who attend TMC meetings and receive TMC publications on a regular basis will now be known as "subscribers." They will simply subscribe
to services provided by TMC. While this seems to preserve TMC, the hidden cost may be too high.
While TMC has always been a successful
professional society, the organization's
soul has always been its fraternal nature.
Close bonds exist among members based on shared experience. Much of that experience involves the pains of long-suffering truck maintenance people. Unlike financial, sales, and operations managers, maintenance managers have typically been second fiddles, often
discounted as unprofessional, necessary evils in the business of getting freight moved. These close bonds nurtured by TMC were based on membership. "Full" membership in TMC was reserved for fleet members -- those long-suffering maintenance managers. Industry
suppliers were let in on the limited basis
of "associate" membership. They were permitted to help out around the place, but the message was clear that they never truly "belonged." Special awards were developed for full members who made long-term or outstanding contributions to TMC. Each year up to five
members were awarded the group's coveted Silver Spark Plug award. Over the years this group of winners developed into its own fraternity, and most loved TMC like family. I have no doubt most of these people would go to the wall for the organization if they found it necessary.
Replacing membership with subscription
may sound like just words, a Washington
solution to a tough political problem. But I
think it may strike at the heart of TMC. ATA
wants to look at TMC as a "business
enterprise" that simply delivers services to customers. The reality is dramatically different. In this case, the customers
deliver all the services. Without the members creating technical materials, attending meetings and shows, there really are no services. Sure, ATA provides a competent professional staff to help the members do what they want to do, but they are not the real service anyone is subscribing to.
What looks like a satisfactory compromise today may turn out to be simply a splitting of the goose that laid the golden egg. ATA has its place and must be preserved. Equally so, TMC serves a useful function in the transport
industry and it should be maintained. I'm no longer certain they can survive together.
Bill Tracy is a former executive director of