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Trucker protest disrupts ports

Independent truckers across the nation set up picket lines and disrupted business at ports, including Baltimore's, yesterday to protest wage rates that they said haven't kept up with fuel prices and other costs.

The truckers want the right to unionize so they can collectively bargain for better pay and conditions. They plan to refuse to deliver cargo throughout the week.

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"This is a nationwide coordinated effort, and we want to shut down the piers," said Milton Miles, an independent trucker who spent part of yesterday outside the Seagirt Marine Terminal picketing with about 45 other truckers. "We caused a definite disruption. A lot of guys wouldn't cross our picket line."

The impact on ports in Baltimore and elsewhere appeared mixed. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees Seagirt and other public port facilities, said the picket lines caused little disruption. Truckers and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said they may have had more effect at ports including Newark, N.J.; Savannah, Ga.; and Miami.

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The independent truckers, who own their rigs and lease them to trucking companies, say the crux of the issue is money.

Shippers, such as retailers that import goods, pay steamship lines and railroads, which in turn pay trucking companies that contract with the independent truckers. The truckers typically get a flat rate to pick up cargo at the ports and deliver it. They put the fee at about a dollar a mile, and that has not gone up in 20 years, truckers say.

During that time, they noted, fuel prices have spiked and other costs have gone up, including truck tags, road tolls and insurance.

Also during that time, truckers say, security concerns, congestion and a lack of trailers, called chassis, in good enough repair to support cargo containers on the highway have led to long wait times at the ports - time for which truckers are not paid.

A fuel surcharge that is typically paid by shippers is generally absorbed by shipping lines or trucking companies, and "doesn't get passed onto the guy who actually pays for the fuel," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

The group is seeking federal legislation that would require the surcharge to be forwarded to the truckers.

On other fronts, the truckers are hoping to pressure the ports to improve conditions, and the shippers and steamship lines to pay more. They also want the trucking companies that hire them to negotiate better deals for them.

The truckers say disrupting the cargo flow is the only way to draw attention to their cause.

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"They're angry," said Jim Stewart, a representative of the Teamsters union, which has been seeking to organize the independent truckers. "They're angry at the steamship lines and, in some cases, the ports. They're showing them they mean business."

The Teamsters cannot legally organize the truckers, however, because those who own and operate their own trucks are considered independent businesses. They are barred under federal antitrust laws from collectively bargaining for pay.

Spencer, of the truckers association, said they are unlikely to win an effort to unionize.

However, some who represent the trucking industry, such as the American Trucking Associations, have expressed sympathy for the truckers. They have called on the steamship lines to improve conditions and pay.

Darlene Frank, the MPA spokeswoman, said Baltimore also has sympathy for the truckers but said the port already has an efficient system. She estimated turnaround time for truckers at about 30 minutes. And, she added, "We don't have any control over fuel costs or how much they are being paid."


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