“We’re all living a dream out here. But sometimes you’ve got to give up your dream to survive. No one wants to hear this, but this is reality.” –Charlie Claburn, owner-operator and northeast director for Truckers & Citizens United
I caught up with Charlie Claburn the other day and got a vivid update of just how bad things are out there in trucking right now.
Charlie was in the middle of hauling his first load in over three weeks and thinking some very heavy thoughts – primarily about giving up on being an owner-operator and going back to being a company driver. Right now, Charlie figures by the end of a typical week, with all the money he’s paying out in taxes, tolls, fuel, etc., compared to what the available freight rates are, he’s lucky to take home what an average company driver gets paid.
Considering, too, that most of the carriers out there are trying to keep their own trucks full of freight first and foremost, leaving any leased on owner-operators to scramble, and the picture doesn’t get any prettier. From Charlie’s point of view, the way things are going, the days of the owner-operator may be numbered indeed.
“Based on what the costs are versus what we’re getting paid, we can’t compete,” he told me by cell phone. “The owner-operator I believe is a dying breed now – we’re going to be extinct if things keep on like this. In 10 or 15 years, there will hardly be any of us, I think.”
The hell of it is, Charlie – and thousands of independents just like him – are doing everything right. When he became an owner-operator, he went out and bought a good used truck out of Wal-Mart’s fleet – a decent 2000 model year International tractor with a sleeper cab that’s getting almost 9 miles per gallon on average.
“If I’m pulling 32,000 to 36,000 pounds, I’m getting almost 10 mpg,” Charlie told me. “For over 41,000 pounds, I get about 8.5 mpg. Shows you that Wal-Mart’s been way ahead of the curve.”
Charlie’s truck payment is only $700 since he went the used truck route and the company he’s leased on with – Blackhawk Transportation out of Appleton, WI – pays 100% of his plate costs and passes on 100% of its fuel surcharge to him (though that’s gotten pretty skimpy since diesel prices crashed over the last half of 2008). They even pay his road taxes as long as he records everything properly.
“They’ve been really good to me – and you can’t say that about a lot of trucking companies out there today,” Charlie said.
Yet Blackhawk’s barely got enough good freight to keep its own trucks filled these days, much less its corps of owner-operators – especially for guys like Charlie, based in some out of the way places such as Hudson Falls in upstate New York, where good paying backhauls are even scarcer than decent outbound loads.
“I don’t know if I’ll get anything decent to get me back home,” Charlie explained to me, as I listened to him shifting gears smoothly in the background. “The problem is the shippers out here seem to be beating us up on freight rates, upset at all the fuel surcharges they paid last year when oil costs were so high. They don’t understand that those high oil prices were killing us. They think we’re rolling in the dough. We’re not.”
Another beef Charlie’s got is with state governments – and not just New York’s. It seems to him that every time he turns around, taxes on trucks are going up, along with highway tolls. And it seems more and more states are either raising tolls or looking to privatize roads to get more money – leaving all highway users, not just truckers, at the mercy of for-profit corporations.
“They just don’t seem to get it – if you add $65 worth of tolls to our hauls every week, after a month that equals a car payment or credit card bill for guys like me,” Charlie pointed out. “Only the large companies can absorb costs like that – smaller carriers and owner-operators can’t. With the economy the way it is right now, you can’t put any more financial stress on us.”
Those are just some of the reasons Charlie got on board with Truckers & Citizens United – trying to bring truckers and ordinary motorists together to fight these issues. Despite protests across New York state and in Washington, D.C. last year, though, the problems just seem to get worse.
The sad irony is that Charlie gave up on another dying traditional American occupation to become a trucker – dairy farming. He’d grown up in farming and has a degree in animal husbandry, but when it cost him $18 to produce a hundredweight of milk yet he could only get $16 for it, he knew his way of life had to change – with a wife and three kids to take care of, he explained, you have no choice.
“We raised our animals like pets – it was more than just a job; it was a way of life,” he told me at the Truckers & Citizens United protest in Washington D.C. last year. But he had to give it up – becoming a truck driver in 2000. “Living on a farm and knowing how to operate equipment, I figured I would be able to make money in trucking. But I found out this industry is harder and more cutthroat than farming ever was.”
Now, though, he’s faced with change again – for when it comes down to it, despite everything he’s doing, the ability to make a living driving a truck for himself is getting almost impossible. “Look, I know how to plan a trip and I know how to keep my costs in line,” Charlie stressed to me. “But when it starts costing you money to work – when you are coming up short despite doing all the right things – it’s time to do something else.”
That’s a hard, horrible truth to face. But if anyone can face it and overcome it, it’s Charlie. Good luck to you my friend.