Sunday, January 4, 2015

Keep on truckin'

Next time you're talking to Norman Jewison, ask him about FIST.

I'm willing to bet he's gonna pretend he's not Norman Jewison from the moment you bring that up.

I was chatting with my old pal Janet today. We've known one another since high school days. She graduated. I didn't, at least not on the first go-round.

You'd think that high school diploma would have set Janet off on a magical journey to all the wonders that a diploma can bestow, at least according to high school guidance counsellors, and it might have, but then she got mixed up with my buddy Kipling instead.

Like all long term relationships, theirs was not without its highs and lows, its good times and bad, its court orders and gun battles... but the point is, they survived!

In the late '70's, for reasons that have never been made clear, Norman Jewison directed a film called FIST, an acronym for the strictly imaginary Federation of Inter-State Truckers. The movie followed the ultimately doomed exploits of Johnny Kovac as he tried to organize owner-operators against evil trucking companies, or in today's parlance, "logistics solution providers."

The greatest strategic failure of Jimmy Hoffa was to snub the owner-operators when they first went to the Teamsters looking for back-up in an attempt to organize. Hoffa's principled decision was that since the owner-operators owned their own trucks, supporting them would essentially leave the Teamsters in a position where they were negotiating a return on capital for businessmen. While that may technically have been true, it's not hard to see the flaw in the argument. Eventually the owner-operator phenomenon decimated not only the Teamsters Union, but the trucking industry itself.

FIST did a lot to glamorize the owner-operator crowd. Not that it needed a lot of glamorizing. In the mid-sixties Teamsters drivers wore their union jackets with the same cocky confidence that a full patch Hells Angel wears his colors today, and by God, the owner-operator was gonna have all that plus the allure of Marlboro-man-style good old American independence!

The freedom of the open road, plus being you're own boss! How could life get any better!

A number of my friends, including Kipling, went down that road. In fact, the only reason I didn't go down that road was because I couldn't secure a loan to buy a rig.

I was hugely disappointed.

From that high point in the middle sixties to today, trucking has more or less become a shit job. There are good reasons why there's a shortage of hundreds of thousands of drivers in the "logistics provider industry" today.

In an attempt to set that shortage right, the industry has reached out to different minority groups in order to give them a leg up. For a long time JB Hunt and many others sourced their driver pool from state prisons that offered driver training. Made a lot of sense in a way, and had some success, but all too often, after a couple of years of working insane hours for minimal pay, a lot of guys realized they were better off back in the state penitentiary!

The owner-operator segment of the market has been successfully played off against the company drivers and against one another for 50 years now. This could be resolved by uniting all drivers under one umbrella.

Jimmy Hoffa had the opportunity to do that, but chose not to.

Johnny Kovacs and many others have tried it since, including my friend Kipling. What inevitably happens is that even if the organizers succeed in getting half the guys to park their rigs, that just leaves twice as much work for the half that won't.

That in turn results in unfortunate incidents of cement blocks falling from interstate overpasses, and right away you've got 100% unified public outrage against the guys trying to unify the truck drivers in order to secure a decent living.

And so the downward spiral continues...

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