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!

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