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Diesel price rally hits New Jersey turnpike

By Jim Crutchfield, IWW NYC GMB - Industrial Worker, May 2008

Members of the New York City IWW branch attended a rally on April 1 at a truck stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, where an estimated 300 drivers, mostly owner-operators, met to protest fuel price gouging and address the media. The rally was part of a nationwide work stoppage by truckers that reportedly shut down several major ports on the East and West Coasts and turned highways around Chicago into parking lots.

Drivers from as far away as Florida were present at the New Jersey gathering, along with many drivers’ family members and other supporters. Two Wobblies addressed the crowd and were warmly received. The union collected contact information from nearly 100 drivers, many of whom expressed great enthusiasm for continuing their agitation and solidifying their organization.

IWW members also helped pacify the New Jersey State Police, who had started the morning with a barrage of traffic tickets, but backed off and just watched the show after being reassured that the gathering would be peaceful and that drivers would obey parking and traffic regulations.

A number of other groups were also represented. Teamsters Local 805 President Sandy Pope offered help and support to the drivers, as well as a message of solidarity. Pope’s local has developed a close co-operative relationship with the NYC IWW. A congressional candidate from the Socialist Workers Party also addressed the crowd, and party activists were busy handing out newspapers to the crowd, as always.

The drivers’ main concern was the price of fuel, which is now about $4 per gallon. The average 18-wheeler gets about five miles to the gallon, which independent drivers must pay for themselves. Brokers, who assign loads to the drivers, charge shippers fuel surcharges, supposedly to cover the increase in fuel costs since the launch of the Iraq war. Diesel price rally hits New Jersey turnpike However, these surcharges are rarely passed on to the drivers who actually pay for the fuel. Among the drivers’ demands was a rollback of fuel prices to pre-war levels and a rebate of windfall profits in the form of subsidies for alternative fuels.

The growing unrest among truck drivers nation-wide presents a significant organizing opportunity for the IWW, but also many difficult challenges. The success of any organizing campaign would depend on the organization’s ability to adapt its structure and administrative operations to the needs of a large number of highly mobile drivers, who are seldom able to meet in any one place and also on its ability to educate the drivers as to their true economic role in their industry.

Most owner-operators are led to believe they are independent business persons, and the individualist, entrepreneurial mentality may present a serious obstacle to collective action.

An effort last year to organize New Jersey port drivers disintegrated, in large part because of many drivers’ unwillingness to subordinate their individual interests to the welfare of the group. No formal campaign has yet been launched by the IWW, but wobblies expect to continue meeting with drivers and assist in future actions.