Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Caballería Mexicana

In El Paso, across a dusty parking lot from a big truck stop owned by an American truck stop chain, there's a tiny restaurant with yellow-painted walls, high ceilings and a few tables and chairs. In spite of it's size it feels like an open, airy space. On the walls are hand-painted posters about trucks and "truckeros." Drivers drift in and out past a man out front who sells shiny new cowboys boots, with no lables of any kind on them, out of the back of a pickup truck. At a picnic table visible through the restaurant's open back door a small group of truckeros converse in Spanish while eating their tacos and beans and rice. Inside, two drivers eat silently. Orders are taken at the high counter, behind which is the kitchen, by a friendly senora who helps the cook prepare the meals and delivers them to the tables.

Semi trucks bearing Mexican license plates are fairly common in border towns like El Paso, Laredo, Browsville, Nogales, and Otay Mesa near San Diego. Freight coming out of Mexico by truck is brought through customs by Mexican drivers and delivered to brokers' warehouses, where American truckers pick it up.

The Mexican truckers, after a meal at a place like the one described above, have to turn around and go back to Mexico, usually empty. Except for the few miles from the border to a broker's warehouse, Mexican trucks aren't allowed to travel the US highways, but that's about to change. The change could wipe out the driver shortage in the US I alluded to in my last post.

Under NAFTA, Mexican, US and Canadian trucks were supposed to be able to deliver and pick up loads in all three countries. As it is now, US trucks go into Canada, and Canadian trucks come into the US, but in the case of Mexican trucks, that NAFTA provision has long been delayed, primarily over concerns that Mexican truck are unsafe, that they are not properly maintained.

Indeed, 10 to 20 years ago, many of the Mexican trucks you saw along the border were older models that had been owned by one of the big US companies. They stood out because of their age and the familiar colors. They looked like a Schneider or a JB Hunt truck with the insignia removed. They had been driven here until they were almost worn out, then sold to a trucking company in Mexico, where safety enforcement traditionally was more lax.

Some of the impetus, I can't say how much, for keeping out Mexican trucks came from the Teamsters Union. Mexican drivers were paid per day what a union driver makes per hour. Even non union US drivers easily made three or four times what a Mexican driver made.

But things have changed, both in driver pay and in the quality of Mexican trucking fleets. Mexican driver pay is now within 20 percent of US driver pay, in US dollars. Mexican fleets have been buying new trucks. They even use one model that has an automatic trasnmission not available here yet.

Under a USDOT pilot program underway now, a handful of Mexican trucking companies are being allowed access to the US market. There are now thirteen of them on the USDOT's active list, which displays each company's "out of service" rates, based on inspections at the border, and on whatever individual state inspections their trucks may have received, such as at weigh stations or at temporary roadside inspection sites. The Mexican companies' out of service rates are under the US average of 22.27 percent. (Out of every 100 US trucks inspected, 22.27 are put "out of service." They have to sit there until a defect is fixed.)

Hold the Fort

What got me thinking about all this, and revisiting the subject, was an article in a trucking trade publication today about drivers protesting the treatment they're getting at US border crossings, with this headline:

Arizona DOT warning of border blockade threats by Mexican truckers

There article goes on to say, "Truckers out of Nogales, Sonora (Mexico), and Nogales, Ariz., have been pushing for better treatment, ADOT says, citing “high number of inspections, high level of fines and high number of trucks placed out of service” by federal inspectors."

Note that is it's not only drivers from Nogales, Mexico, but also from Nogales, Arizona, which is more than 93 percent of Latino decent, so it's safe to say the protesting driver's are of Mexican decent.

Arizona, no doubt, is urging the USDOT to look into the drivers' concerns because it doesn't want any disruption in the $26 billion in annual trade that goes through Nogales, which supports 10,000 jobs in a city of 21,000 people, nor any impediment to the 30,000 Mexicans per day who shop in Nogales.

Arizona's primary port is Nogales. Old truckers tell stories about being stuck there, delivering a load and then waiting days to get a load coming out of Mexico. But the last time I was there, it's been maybe four years ago but I was there several times that year, there was no waiting for any loads. Arizona officials no doubt know what the economic implications of the kind of blockade the Mexican drivers are threatening.

The Arizona DOT's warning reads: "While the Arizona Department of Transportation doesn’t take a position on the merit of these grievances, the department is urging the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to carefully consider these complaints and to resolve differences with the trucking industry to avoid a blockade.”

Apparently Sheriff Joe Arpaio is being kept out of the loop on this one.

 What's significant for the US trucking driving industry, I think, is that US truck drivers -- I'm talking traditional, white male, disproportionately from the South and small town USA where truck driving is one of the better jobs available -- would never mount such a protest. When they get fed up with truck driving they just quit driving trucks. The ones who stay in it moan and bellyache a lot about conditions and regulations, but whenever anyone suggests something like organizing they pounce on the idea with a stream of ready made talking points about the evils of unions. They listen to Rush Limbaugh all day while they're driving, and at night to Fox News, which is on the TV screen in many truck stop restaurants, and they are bend over and grab your ankles white male working class conservatives.

I'm reminded of when a presidential election was stolen in the US, in 2000, and nothing happened. When a presidential election was stolen in Mexico, in 2006, the next day two million people were in the streets.

El caballeria de México es en su camino!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Electronic Logs Are Coming - The Drivers Are Leaving

In the latest of the US Department of Transportation's solutions in search of a problem, Electronic Logging Devices, ELDs, which record the movement of a truck and will completely replace the long used "paper logs," are relentlessly making their way through the rule making process.

In other words, the good old days of cheating on your log book are over.  No more keeping two logs books. No more making three trips to the coast in a week and only putting down two of them. No more driving 24 hours straight and condensing it into 11 in the log book.

But of course those days were already gone, pretty much, and for good reason, done in by a variety of new logging rules, more enforcement officers, more weigh stations, and new technologies that record trucks passing by weigh stations, and now photographing their license plates and feeding the cold, hard facts into a nationwide interconnected computer system.

A new survey indicates that many older, experienced drivers plan to get out of trucking when ELDs arrive. Some of the bigger companies already have switched to ELD's, and their "company drivers" -- regular employees who drive by the mile or by the hour -- and their "owner-operators" -- truck owners who lease their services to a company, which includes most owner-operaters, who are contract workers for those companies -- are already using ELDs. Those two groups of drivers are indicated by the red bars in the above chart.

Included in the blue bars are many older drivers, who have made their way to smaller companies or do business under their own operating authority as do I. They are expected to hold out the longest before buying and installing ELDS, or else just get out of the business.

Estimates in the industry are that the driver population could decrease by between 10 and 30 percent, adding to an already growing "undercapacity" problem -- that is, there's more freight than than there are trucks to haul it.

Which might be a benefit for someone who just got into trucking, provided they didn't operate out of New Mexico, where the political leadership -- the state's two most powerful people, Republican Governor Susana Martinez and Albuquerque's Republican Mayor Marion Berry -- are committed to keeping the economy shrinking no matter what.

The federal DOT has been on a rule changing binge for more than ten years now. Trucks always had fewer accidents per mile than cars, and the rate keeps declining every year, but state and federal trucking regulation have been growth industries in that ten plus years. I attribute this to (a) trucking is 90 percent un-organized workers, who constitute small minorities in each political constituency, and (b), DOT workers bring in income to state and federal governments. Agencies that don't bring in income are more susceptible to budget cuts. DOTs are actually growing.

I'm not one who is by nature opposed to "government regulation." People who are are people who aren't familiar with the long and complicated process required to change a regulation, or rule, or law. It has to go through many votes and committee reviews, where there are more votes, and public comment periods. Generally, if there's a rule or law there's a good reason for it and it's gone through the whole democratic process, which means we wanted it.

But I've written before about some of the justification for these recent DOT rule changes. It's all supposed to be based on "research," but I've never seen any of it, but mostly it doesn't take into account the way trucking has to adapt to the ebbs and flows of the business world, which is our customer base. In essence, the DOT wants truckers to be on a 9-5, Monday through Friday schedule, but business is on a 24/7 schedule. The costs for business to adopt to a DOT schedule, and have all their shipping and receiving condensed into a much shorter time frame, would be immense, for business and trucking.

What To Do?

I'll go with the flow and see what happens. As I alluded to above, this could be beneficial for me. It could lead to higher rates and more volume. When all is said and done, most drivers will adapt, it is thought, and I will, too. I'm not too afraid of "modern technology," and it will be a new generation of drivers, for the most part, who drive with ELDs, and it's all they will know. The ELD will make it easier to say no to dispatchers who press you to drive and drive and drive. It might make driving more pleasant. It could even make it safer.

I'm done with the 24 hours straight driving stretches, anyway. I found out I could do that quite easily in my first year in trucking. I recall driving across the state of Texas on I-10, 900 miles. In a slow truck, and with a few stops to eat and get coffee, it took 24 hours. There were no weigh stations to worry about. Texas has very few to begin with, and they are rarely open. I drove ten years before I pulled into a Texas weigh station.

My most prolific driving feat, I think, was from a farm in California to a Kellogg's cereal plant in Ontario, with some kind of nuts. They had sent me to pick up the load a day after it was supposed to be picked up, and in cases like that, dispatchers will never change the delivery appointment, and the computer will charge you with being late, then you have to go through a whole process to get it off your record.

I left California, was delayed crossing the mountains because I had to get tire chains. They weren't needed at the time, but they have to be on the truck in the winter months. I drove for 24 hours, stopped at an off ramp in Lincoln, NE, slept one hour, then drove 16 hours more to reach the destination, on time, stopping along the way in downtown Detroit to go through customs. Luckily that was in the middle of the night. I had a truck that would go 70 or so, as opposed to the Texas truck which went 55 or 57.

For any kind, handsome DOT officers who may be reading this, remember that this is a work of fiction, the product of a delusional mind, actually, and is based on a story told to me by Jim Baca.