Truckers' tough decision: strike or keep rolling

If there is a nationwide shutdown by independent truckers Feb. 1, count Joe Cartmell in. Poking at a plateful of eggs and sausage in a cafeteria across from the sprawling New England Produce Center here, Mr. Cartmell is waiting for repairs to his 1978 Kenworth rig before he heads home to New Jersey. Depending on how long the repairs take, he may have time for one last load before the shutdown threatened by owner-operators in retaliation for congressional passage of user-fee increases to benefit the Highway Trust Fund.

''I'll just park it,'' Cartmell says. ''I've got to work seven days a week, anyhow (to break even). If I'm not in the truck, I'm under it. You're stealing from yourself, when you ought to be with your family.''

The tax package also includes a 5-cent-a-gallon hike for gasoline and diesel fuel, one cent of which is earmarked for mass transit. This, too, annoys the trucking industry.

As Robert Jasmon, director of the Midwest Truckers Association, puts it: ''The industry is not one to say, 'Hey, don't tax us; tax everybody else.' We're not unwilling to pay our fair share. But we're very uptight about paying to subsidize other industries.''

Adds Greta Hayes of the National Council of Independent Truckers: ''We need improved roads. But they (government) need to figure something out so we can all go on working.''

The fee increase on heavy trucks from $240 a year now to $1,600 in 1984 and $ 1,900 in 1988 has produced heated rhetoric by industry groups, who are pressuring Congress to ease the hike. Outgoing Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis already has pledged protection for nonstrikers against possible violence.

But divisions in the industry are evident.

The 30,000-member Independent Truckers Association (ITA), based in Van Nuys, Calif., is openly organizing a shutdown. Smaller groups representing independent haulers have disavowed it, however. And while the Washington-based American Trucking Associations, which represents the major firms, has publicly indicated it will not participate in a strike, some truckers say otherwise.

What independents who belong to no group will do Feb. 1 is known only to themselves. Several who have talked with reporters indicate they worry about violence if they continue driving when others aren't. Generally, they decry a lack of organization in their ranks.

ITA president Michael Parkhurst is coordinating the national shutdown campaign from a Washington hotel and has scheduled weekend meetings at key truck stops to rally last-minute support. He claims the impending action will be more effective than the 1979 strike over diesel fuel prices and supplies, which lasted one month.

Truckers cannot pass their added costs through to consumers, Mr. Parkhurst and other leaders say, because the industry currently is too competitive. They maintain there is a huge surplus of empty trucks.

Cartmell, who leases his rig to a large Midwestern trucking firm, hauls corn oil, chocolate syrup, vinegar, and other liquids used by the food industry. He drove 70,000 miles last year and grossed $65,000. His net profit, however, was zero.

''This is the worst I've seen the industry in all my years in it,'' he says. ''If I can't buy a new truck in four years, I'm not making any money. And my truck is five years old.''

It costs Cartmell $1.03 a mile to operate his rig, but he complains that compensation can range from $1 a mile to as low as 55 cents on a return trip if it is empty. Even at that, he maintains, as a tank-truck operator he is better paid than haulers of other freight.

Some owner-operators readily concede that they feel compelled to push their equipment to its limits rather than spend money for preventive maintenance. At prices in the $80,000 range, new rigs are out of the question for many.

A veteran of 34 years behind the wheel, Cartmell claims he is more fortunate than some of his colleagues. With his wife working, he can afford to take his truck off the road. But he says he does not think a shutdown will result in repeal of the graduated tax increase.

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