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Truckers are Organizing Online: Is a Nationwide Shutdown Coming?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 8 2008

Is a nationwide truckers' strike just over the horizon? As gasoline prices climb towards and past $4 a gallon, something is brewing that--with the help of the web--could very well upend the flatlining presidential primaries and force hard economic questions that none of the presidential candidates really want to wrestle with to the center of the national conversation.

Lots of people are being hurt by the emerging recession--people whose homes are being foreclosed, people who are being laid off, people who can't find a job--but for the most part their pain is private, and their efforts to seek solutions or answers tend to also remain private, even in the age of what writer Clay Shirky has aptly called "ridiculously easy group formation." By contrast, truckers have always been uniquely well connected to each other, via old-fashioned CB radio technology.

But now the Internet may add a powerful boost to their nascent calls for a social response to economic pain. Right now, on message boards like Topix.net and sites like The American Driver, truckers are debating what to do about rising fuel prices and their wrenching effects on their profession. You can watch YouTube videos of the convoy of trucks that tied up traffic last week in Harrisburg, PA. (These videos already have several thousand views.) Over on MySpace, TruckerStrike08 has nearly 2000 friends (and top on his list of people he wants to meet: Jimmy HOffa.) The truckers are talking about an immediate halt to taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil, the release of fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and tougher regulation of their industry.

Barbara Ehrenreich, longtime chronicler of the American working class (see her book Nickel and Dimed), has just posted an eye-opening column that pulls together what is starting to happen:

...on April 1, in a wave of defiance, truck drivers began taking the strongest form of action they can take – inaction. Faced with $4/gallon diesel fuel, they slowed down, shut down and started honking. On the New Jersey Turnpike, a convoy of trucks stretching “as far as the eye can see,” according to a turnpike spokesman, drove at a glacial 20 mph. Outside of Chicago, they slowed and drove three abreast, blocking traffic and taking arrests. They jammed into Harrisburg PA; they slowed down the Port of Tampa where 50 rigs sat idle in protest. Near Buffalo, one driver told the press he was taking the week off “to pray for the economy.”

The truckers who organized the protests – by CB radio and internet – have a specific goal: reducing the price of diesel fuel. They are owner-operators, meaning they are also businesspeople, and they can’t break even with current fuel costs. They want the government to release its fuel reserves. They want an investigation into oil company profits and government subsidies of the oil companies. Of the drivers I talked to, all were acutely aware that the government had found, in the course of a weekend, $30 billion to bail out Bear Stearns, while their own businesses are in a tailspin.

But the truckers’ protests have ramifications far beyond the owner-operators’ plight --first, because trucking is hardly a marginal business. You may imagine, here in the blogosphere, that everything important travels at the speed of pixels bouncing off of satellites, but 70 percent of the nation’s goods – from Cheerios to Chapstick --travel by truck. We were able to survive a writers’ strike, but a trucking strike would affect a lot more than your viewing options. As Donald Hayden, a Maine trucker put it to me: “If all the truckers decide to shut this country down, there’s going to be nothing they can do about it.”

More importantly, the activist truckers understand their protest to be part of a larger effort to “take back America,” as one put it to me. “We continue to maintain this is not just about us,” “JB”-- which is his CB handle and stands for the “Jake Brake” on large rigs-- told me from a rest stop in Virginia on his way to Florida. “It’s about everybody – the homeowners, the construction workers, the elderly people who can’t afford their heating bills… This is not the action of the truck drivers, but of the people.” Hayden mentions his parents, ages and 81 and 76, who’ve fought the Maine winter on a fixed income. Missouri-based driver Dan Little sees stores shutting down in his little town of Carrollton. “We’re Americans,” he tells me, “We built this country, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lie down and take this.”If you question that this is about more than just the truckers' narrow need for cheaper diesel fuel, check out the language of their "National Shut-Down" flyer:

Professional drivers are asking American Citizens to participate with us in the "National Shut-Down"

This is an issue effecting all of us and we MUST take a stand NOW.
Our government IS a major contributing factor in the outrageous price of fuel, and the struggle American citizens are experiencing making ends meet.
We must take this action to get their attention. All other avenues has only fallen on deaf ears - our government is ignoring the will, and needs, of the American people.

In The Last Year
(63,000 Jobs Lost)
(2 Million American Citizens Lose Their Homes)
(28 Million American Citizens Projected To Be On Food Stamp Programs)

Our government officials are eating good dinners, are living in beautiful homes, are driving brand new vehicles and are collecting large salaries...on the American Citizen's dollar. It's time to take our country back.

It is far too soon to say whether the truckers will manage to organize themselves into a meaningful protest movement capable of coordinating mass action across the country. They're in a tough business, and going on strike means losing even more money than they're losing now--and it isn't as if these independent business owners have strike funds to rely on. But something is happening here, Mr. Jones, and the web is helping to make it happen faster and bigger. Will the politicians be ready to respond?