Truckers Demand Surcharges for Higher Diesel Costs

Staff Reporter

High diesel fuel costs are fraying relations between a group of trucking firms delivering goods into Mexico and the independent drivers they hire on contract.

About 100 independent drivers staged a three-day wildcat strike last month to demand surcharges for high fuel prices they claimed were killing their profits. The drivers work routes between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the Mexican boarder crossing of Otay Mesa near San Diego.

The labor unrest ended when some trucking companies agreed to pay the stipends even though they weren't being fully reimbursed by vessel lines and shippers. The companies said they expect more problems if fuel prices increase again for an extended period.

"We're losing a lot of money because of fuel prices," said Michael Song, operations manager for Gardena-based Calinex Transport Inc., whose 80 contracted drivers took part in the strike. "If diesel prices go up (again), I have no doubt the drivers will (strike) again."

Diesel prices for Southern California, which peaked at $1.92 per gallon on March 12, fell to $1.78 as of April 2, according to the California Energy Commission. The cost was $1.63 in early January. The agency attributed most of the increase to the high cost of crude oil on the world market.

Calinex now pays its drivers a surcharge of 10 percent of the $230 rate for a round trip between the ports and the Mexican border.

If prices remain high into the peak container traffic season, from early August through mid October, companies might refuse to transport goods for smaller shippers who won't pay a fuel surcharge.

For now, their leverage is limited because this is a slow period for container traffic. The handful of companies that work the ports-to-Mexico route need all the business they can get.

Squeezing a profit from the work is a difficult task for drivers because they must pay for their own truck, insurance, maintenance and fuel costs. When diesel prices increased earlier this year, some drivers who weren't compensated for the difference walked off the job.

The trucks of colleagues who refused to join the strike labeled a "wildcat" action because it was not authorized by a union were pelted with rocks as they drove through the crossing zone east of San Diego.

The drivers organized themselves, but they failed to unify in large numbers.

"It wasn't successful," Gary Smith, the West Coast representative for the port division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said of the drivers' attempts.

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