Truck Driver Strikes of 1979

The 1970s was unquestionably a time of turmoil in the United States and when it came to labor disputes, the trucking industry was at the heart of it all on more than one occasion. There is little wonder that the intersection of rising fuel prices and the trucking industry was a volatile one: over 75 percent of the nation's goods were transported by truckers. As the saying goes, "If you got it, a trucker brought it.

However, bringing those goods to Americans became increasingly expensive for truckers in the 1970s due to turmoil in another part of the world - the Middle East. In October 1973, in the midst of the Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) were not pleased with the United States government's decision to send more supplies to the Israeli Army. To show their displeasure, OPEC implemented an oil embargo against any country

that supported Israel. The result was skyrocketing prices of oil, first doubling then quadrupling the price per barrel. The timing could not have been worse for a country that was becoming increasingly dependent on foreign oil. The implications were far-reaching, impacting not only the trucking industry, but the entire economy.

As the U.S. began to ration oil in response to the crisis, President Richard Nixon also led the push for a national 55 mph speed limit. This combination of events pushed many truckers to the brink of financial ruin. In December 1973, independent truckers initiated a strike with former trucker, Mike Parkhurst, leading the movement. The citizen's band (CB) radio, which became a symbol of the iconic 1970s trucker, was a useful tool in spreading the word to other independent truckers and organizing traffic jams to clog major transportation arteries. In 1976, the primary union for truck drivers, the Teamsters, called for a nationwide strike over disputes about wages. It ended after just three days when a new contract was ratified, allowing for a cost-of-living increase and a 30 percent wage hike that would be spread over the next three years. This was, of course, still the era when trucking and the airlines were under government regulation, similar to public utilities. Routes that existed and who could drive them (or in the case of airlines, fly them) were controlled by the government. By the end of the decade, both airline and trucking deregulation would become federal law.

As the decade drew to a close, in the early months of 1979, fuel prices again began to climb and the contract negotiated by Teamsters President Frank Fitzsimmons in 1976 was due to expire. In the background of the negotiations, progress toward deregulation - which had started in 1975 under President Gerald Ford - was gaining steam. This only served to complicate matters for Fitzsimmons as he tried to negotiate a new national contract for union drivers. He attempted to put pressure on some of the larger trucking companies with whipsaw strikes, or strikes targeted at select companies, and over 300,000 of the nation's truckers and warehouse employees stopped working. On April 2, many of the 500 companies targeted by Fitzsimmons responded to the strike with a lockout.

Some Teamster insiders blamed Alfred Kahn for throwing a wrench into the negotiations. Kahn, an economics professor at Cornell University, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to oversee deregulation of the airlines the previous year. Now, with Kahn's attention on the trucking industry, reports were that he liked neither the Teamsters nor the trucking industry and was determined to, in a time of double-digit inflation, limit the wage increases that the truckers sought. Whether reports about Kahn were true or not, Americans quickly felt the effects of a work stoppage in the trucking industry.

The Chrysler Corporation temporarily closed nine of its 10 North American auto assembly plants. General Motors laid off 12,400 workers. Fresh food spoiled as it sat, waiting to be shipped to grocery stores, while retailers' shelves began to empty. People lined up for hours in some locations, waiting to fill up their gas tanks, assuming that the gas station had any gas to sell. Gas shortages and food shortages in a country where people were used to getting what they want, when they wanted it, raised tempers and concern for how they would cope if contract issues were not resolved. Ultimately, it was the layoffs in the auto industry that put the pressure on Fitzsimmons to lower his demands and the strike/lockout ended on April 11, 1979.


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