Friday, December 15, 2006

Hazards of the long haul

Weary, financially pressed truckers raise round-the-clock road risks

Hurtling down a darkened Indiana highway, Roger Kobernick pulls his 75-foot-long rig into a truck stop just long enough to grab his one meal of the day, a thin baloney and cheese sandwich that he gulps down with a huge mug of black coffee.

He has several more hours of driving ahead this night to reach a warehouse in Walton, Ky., where he wants to be the first in line so he can get quickly unloaded and back on the road.

The next morning, after his truck is emptied, he sets off without breakfast or even washing up. Hours later as he falls in with a truck caravan snaking along a stretch of North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, he relaxes and his worries spill out.

"I'm 42 years old," he said. "And what am I going to do? Give it up? No, you gotta go out and pay the bills. You gotta keep plugging at it. I don't foresee me ever retiring. My dad worked 'til the day he died, and I foresee that being me."

Long hours

Truckers like Kobernick are travelers adrift in a tumultuous sea.

Spurred by a global economy that demands that goods be delivered on time and at low prices, business has never been so brisk and so cutthroat. Paid by the delivery, not the hour, the country's 350,000 independent truckers like Kobernick are lashed to punishing schedules that practically force them to live in their rigs. Counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour.

Long hours, chaotic schedules and exhausting work conditions make for a potentially lethal formula - for truck drivers and everyone else on the road.

Nearly a decade ago, the government vowed to significantly reduce the number of fatalities from truck crashes, but the results have been mixed. Nationally the death toll fell until 2002 and then started climbing. In the three most heavily traveled states, California, Texas and Florida, deaths involving large truck crashes have steadily climbed.

More than 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured yearly in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Most often the victims are in passenger cars.

Take the night last April when trucker Robert Spencer, 37, of Canton Township, Mich., was headed north on I-69 in Indiana at close to 70 mph, according to a sworn statement from an investigator.

His truck crossed the highway's divide and slammed into a southbound van carrying nine people from the Fort Wayne campus of Taylor University. All were injured; five were killed, four of them students in their early 20s.

"Did I hit something? What happened? Who did this?" Spencer said at the scene. Besides five counts of reckless homicide, Spencer also was charged with filing a false logbook, concealing that he had driven 9 1/2 hours beyond the 11-hour daily maximum allowed by law.

Truckers do not escape being victims; 930 were killed in the U.S. while working last year, up 33 percent from 1992. And while they made up only 2 percent of the work force last year, they accounted for more than 16 percent of fatal workplace injuries.

Last week the health of truck drivers was taken up by the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C. It heard the latest arguments in a long battle that has pitted trucking companies against groups concerned with driver safety. Companies are pushing to increase the time drivers can be behind the wheel; critics contend that extending truckers' work days is aimed at increasing corporate profits at drivers' expense.

"You have drivers who are already working almost twice the normal 40-hour week," said LaMont Byrd, the Teamsters' Health and Safety director.

Dave Osieke, head of safety for the American Trucking Association, said the fact that fatality rates had fallen until only recently is evidence "that safety has improved."

One reason fatality rates haven't fallen faster, added Ian Grossman, a spokesman at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, is that highways are more congested and more truckers are on the road. Since 1996, trucking mileage has soared by 43 billion miles, up 24 percent. Considering such dramatic changes, the death toll increase is quite low, he said.

'Race to the bottom'

When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?

It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, said Mike Belzer, a one-time trucker who is now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he said, it has been a "race to the bottom."

Before 1980, nearly 9 out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he said. Today, 1 out of 10 carry a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.

It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer added.

"You get what you pay for," Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a "skilled professional" and someone "from the soup line," he said.

New drivers' inexperience worries Kobernick, too. Schmoozing at a warehouse in northern Kentucky, Kobernick swaps stories about new drivers with fellow trucker Jerry Knoy, 52, of Salem, Ind.

"I met a guy two weeks ago who said, 'Hey, can you back my truck in for me,'" Knoy said.

By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a "sweatshop on wheels," Belzer said. Truckers' income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.

Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or less, according to the industry group.

The result is a highly fragmented industry with "low profit margins," according to an association study.

Out of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or, in Kobernick's case, they work for whoever has goods for them.

Some Teamsters members earn as much as $70,000 yearly, and industry experts say the salaries of drivers for large, nonunion fleets are close. Overall, the average pay is about $35,000 a year.

The average independent driver earns about $40,000 a year, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

USF Bestway Workers in Los Angeles Join Local 63

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

On December 13, Local 63 in Covina, California received recognition from USF Bestway to represent a unit of 112 workers at the company’s terminal in Los Angeles. The win in Southern California is the latest victory in the campaign to give Bestway workers the secure future they deserve.

The win in Los Angeles follows similar victories at terminals in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; and San Leandro, Modesto and Sacramento, all in California.

Local 63 sought and received recognition for 112 line drivers, city drivers and dockworkers.

The dockworkers, line drivers and city drivers in the West will be organized through the Master Bestway Agreement card-check neutrality clause negotiated in the Southwest and Southeast.

Seventy percent of the 112 drivers and dockworkers in Los Angeles signed cards to form a union.

"The drivers and dockworkers at the Los Angeles terminal turned to us to get the strong, secure future that they deserve. We look forward to providing them with the best representation so that they will have strong voices on the job," said Randy Cammack, Local 63 Secretary-Treasurer.

YRC cuts earnings forecast

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
YRC Worldwide Inc. on Thursday lowered its earnings forecast for the fourth quarter by about 30 percent, citing lower freight volumes caused by a slow economy.

In a release, the Overland Park-based trucking company (Nasdaq: YRCW) said it now expects fourth quarter earnings of 95 cents to $1.05 a share, compared with its previous forecast of $1.40 to $1.50 a share.

"As widely reported by industry analysts, the economy has slowed significantly in the fourth quarter, resulting in lower volumes than we anticipated across all of our asset-based business units," YRC President and CEO Bill Zollars said in the release.

Eleven analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call reported a consensus earnings estimate of $1.32 a share for the fourth quarter, which ends in December.

The company also lowered its fiscal 2006 earnings estimate to between $5 and $5.10 a share, compared with its previous estimate of $5.45 to $5.55 a share.

Ten analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call reported a consensus earnings estimate of $5.40 a share for fiscal 2006.

The lower forecasts follow analysts recent downgrade of trucking companies across the board. Analysts with Deutsche Securities, Stifel Nicolaus and BB&T Capital Markets all downgraded YRC Worldwide to "hold" from "buy." A Robert W. Baird analyst downgraded the company to "neutral" from "outperform."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Markets slump as Fed holds rates steady YRC shares slip again in an overall down market

Meanwhile, another downbeat assessment of the trucking industry sends YRC sliding.

YRC Worldwide Inc. shares hit another slick spot on Wall Street, dropping more than 2.5 percent Tuesday after yet another analyst painted a gloomy picture for the trucking sector.

Bear Stearns analyst Edward Wolfe wrote that the nation’s industrial slowdown will cause many truckers to miss Wall Street earnings estimates by more than 5 percent in the fourth quarter.

Wolfe maintained an “underperform” ranking on YRC Worldwide shares and those of competing less-than-truckload carriers Arkansas Best, Old Dominion Freight Line and Con-Way.

In above-average trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market, YRC shares were down $1.09, or 2.76 percent, at $38.38. Shares had fallen in the previous two sessions after three analysts downgraded shares Friday and a fourth cut his earnings estimate Monday.

Overall, stocks slumped as the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee kept short-term interest rates steady for a fourth consecutive meeting at 5.25 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 12.90 points, or 0.10 percent, and closed at 12,315.58 after having been down as much as 76 points. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index slipped 1.48, or 0.10 percent, and closed at 1,411.56. The Nasdaq composite index was down 11.26 points, or 0.46 percent, and closed at 2,431.60.

Although the Fed left rates unchanged, investors grappled with the central bank’s economic assessment, which warned yet again of inflation risks and reported a substantial slowing of the housing sector. The statement left open the possibility that the central bank might raise rates if inflation accelerates. That disappointed some investors who were hoping for signs that the Fed was moving toward cutting rates.

Overall, the statement indicated to market participants that the Fed wants to keep rates steady for as long it can, analysts said.

“They’re trying to talk tough in the hopes of not having to act tougher,” Jack Caffrey, equities strategist at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, told The Associated Press.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Power Networking

Join the Teamsters on MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Blogs

Teamsters are taking their experience in face-to-face organizing to the Internet, connecting members and reaching out to supporters online through some of the most popular sites on the web.

Help our efforts. If you have a MySpace, YouTube or Flickr account, become a “friend” of the Teamsters, or join our Teamster YouTube or Flickr groups.

“We know Teamsters are using the web every day to talk to friends and to each other. And they’re using technology more, too. So we are building an army of e-activists, whose voices are being heard on Capitol Hill and at work sites across the country,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa.

By joining Teamsters Take Action and signing on with our social networking sites, members can keep up with the latest union news and actions. And by sharing calls to action with friends and family, members can help amplify our Teamster power.

“Think about it,” Hoffa said. “We have 1.4 million members. Even if a fraction of them sign up, we’d have thousands of members online ready to take action in a moment’s notice. If they ask their friends and family to join us in protecting jobs or taking a stand on a critical issue, we can easily add millions of voices to our own. That’s a lot of power—power that can make things happen.”

There’s another benefit, too. By organizing on public networking sites, we are able to show through words, photos and videos what being a Teamster is all about, educating nonunion workers and the rest of the nation about the benefits of organized labor.

The union also has been posting on two of the largest political blog sites on the Internet—DailyKos and MyDD. Both blog sites welcome union voices, and more voices are needed. By adding union voices to these and other blog sites, Teamsters can have a larger voice on issues that impact our daily lives.

The International Union is also looking for more Teamster bloggers. now features labor bloggers on the home page and is looking for members to write about their union experiences. If you have a blog, email