Trouble for truckers: gas tax, ruling on railroads likely to pinch profits

The trucking industry is turning to a longtime adversary, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for help in weathering ''deteriorating conditions'' in the industry.

As companies have gone out of business and financial losses have forced others to cut back operations, the industry is asking the IBT to reopen contract negotiations to make unionized employers more competitive.

Since last March, when the industry and the Teamsters negotiated a 37-month labor contract including major worker concessions on wages and work rules, problems have worsened:

* Deregulation of the trucking industry, the recession, and steadily growing competition from nonunion companies have plagued unionized employers.

* The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) on Jan. 6 removed a 48-year-old barrier that had prevented railroads from competing with commercial truckers for freight business to be moved by trucks.

* President Reagan Jan. 5 signed into law the gasoline tax bill which will sharply increase fuel costs and highway user fees for truckers.

The Independent Truckers Association called a strike for Jan. 31 to protest the new law. The announcement touched off a dispute within the industry because the American Truckers Association, which represents 15,000 to 16,000 big trucking firms, opposes the strike.

There has been ''a devastating loss of Teamsters' jobs,'' said Trucking Management Inc. (which represents the industry) in a letter to the IBT last month.

The new ICC order, long sought by the railroads, will permit them to greatly expand the small trucking services many now have and eventually become complete transportation companies.

The 1935 restrictions were intended to protect the trucking industry from ruinous competition from then-powerful railroads.

Under the old regulations, railroads were limited to a use of trucks to haul ''incidental'' freight from a shipper to a train or to its final destination only if a commercial trucking company was not available.

Now that the trucking and railroad industries have balanced strength, the ICC said, the old provisions can be removed.

The American Trucking Association warns that the fight for freight could quickly become ''a real free-for-all,'' and trucking costs for the industry now will become even more critical.

The American Trucking Association will ask the ICC to reconsider its decision which, according to ATA's general counsel, Nelson Cooney, could be ''extremely burdensome'' at a critical time for the industry.

Concessions in the Teamsters' last contract settlement in March 1982 stirred up wide dissatisfaction within the union, although it won approval, and there are still rumblings of discontent with the agreement that many unionists say gave up too much.

Meanwhile, several hundred smaller trucking employers who felt the agreement was still too costly have been negotiating with IBT for additional concessions.

The situation now is probably a lot worse than it was last March. Internal troubles within the Teamsters, including political rivalries that have surfaced after the conviction of its president, Roy Williams, on bribery and fraud charges, could make a new agreement much more difficult.

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