Truckers And Coercion

In this issue, David Drum’s article, “The Lumper’s Controversy,” wrestles with an important issue concerning the treatment that some suppliers apply to truckers. There is absolutely no question that truckers are often put under heavy pressure — and indeed illegal pressure — to handle the unloading of the trucks in a manner satisfactory to receivers and the receivers’ employees. However, to say this is not to deal with the complete question, which is: What types of restrictions are reasonable for receivers to impose at unloading?

The story is this: Truckers are always responsible for unloading their trucks. To be more specific, they are responsible for stacking their merchandise on pallets at the tail of the truck so the receiver’s personnel can easily pull the pallets off the truck and onto the loading dock or into the warehouse.

Because truckers are responsible for unloading, it is their option to determine who will do it. The truck driver can unload his own truck, or he can hire people to help him unload it or to do the unloading for him. These rules are clear.

Yet truckers have complained that they have been forced to hire people to unload their trucks whether they want to hire people or not. They also claim that they have been forced to hire specific people who have a relationship with the receiver, thus restricting the trucker’s right to hire whoever he chooses to help him.

The truckers claim that sometimes the coercion is overt, the “offer you can’t refuse” variety of suggestion. In other cases, the pressure is more subtle, such as long waiting times and other restrictions imposed on truckers who wish to unload their own trucks or hire their own people to unload.

The truckers have a point, and it is silly to pretend that abuses do not exist. But the issues are more complicated than the truckers acknowledge.

A distinction must be made between complaints that are serious and do have merit and others that are foolish and distract one from paying attention to the important issues truckers do raise. Truckers and their organizations complain that they frequently have to pay tolls and entry fees to get into terminal markets. But these types of entry fees are totally predictable and well-known in advance. Every truck broker has an obligation to make sure his truckers are aware of what type of entry fees they will have to pay. Every trucker has an obligation to make sure he has enough cash available to pay for these entry fees. Of course, truckers and their brokers need to factor in all expenses including gas, tolls and market entry fees when calculating their rates.

On the question of unloading charges, however, the truckers have the law on their side. Truckers simply cannot be forced to hire anyone if they don’t want to, and they are free to hire who they choose if they want to hire help. But receivers have some legitimate interests that need to be addressed as well.

One interest receivers have is not to have people of uncertain moral character on their premises. Go to visit almost any terminal market and you will be met at the gateway by loads of people of dubious character looking to get hired by a trucker to help unload his truck. Though undoubtedly some of these are honest, hardworking people just looking for some work, experience has taught many receivers that a large number of these “lumpers” or “cats” as they are called are drug addicts, thieves and generally disreputable. As such, a perfectly respectable receiver, who has not the slightest desire to coerce truckers or cost them a dime, strongly encourages those truckers who wish to hire labor, to hire a lumper that the receiver knows.

If a truck driver chooses to unload his truck himself, the problem of outsiders coming onto the premises is minimized, but another problem is raised: time. In many cases, wholesalers operate with tight platform space much in demand for both unloading suppliers and loading customers. It only makes sense that the receiver allows the trucker who unloads the quickest to go to the front of the line. Though truckers complain that subtle coercion to hire lumpers is being applied to those to want to unload by themselves (and thus go to the end of the line), they may be jumping to conclusions.

Of course, in certain places, there has been and surely continues to be outright coercion in which disreputable people really shake down some drivers by forcing truckers to hire people at excessive rates and getting a kickback. However, this happens in only the smallest percentage of cases and must be reported to the authorities as one would any shakedown scheme.

Is there a solution, however, to the more widespread problems? One thought is that those truck brokers should do a better job of letting their truckers know that lumpers will be available at the receiving point and what the rate will be. The truckers should voluntarily waive the right to hire lumpers from elsewhere once they are assured that lumpers are available at a reasonable wage.

The other thing that needs to be clarified is how long a truck has to unload. It has long been established that if a truck arrives at a receiver at the agreed-upon time, the receiver must allow that truck to unload within eight hours or he has to pay the truck for performing a warehousing function. Perhaps it could be established that truckers have to have their vans emptied within a given amount of time or they are responsible for paying a platform rental fee, or alternatively, the receiver has the right to send in people to unload and deduct the charge from his freight.

In any case, the key to ending this dispute is to have a clear understanding of exactly what the responsibilities are of both trucker and receiver and to have truck brokers who perform the vital functions of making sure everyone involved understands his obligations.