Speculation abounds regarding Australian truck drivers and the possibility of a strike against Covid health orders.
#IStandWithTruckies has been trending on social media platforms after TikTok videos emerged of truck drivers threatening to take action without union approval. The rogue truckies expressed frustration over continuous health checks, fines, border closures, and the implementation of mandatory vaccinations.
This is not to be confused with the truck strike planned for Friday.
Toll Group have been involved in a difficult pay negotiation. Crisis talks with the Transport Workers Union collapsed regarding an enterprise bargaining agreement, prompting the announcement of a twenty-four hour strike.
Five other major transport companies face similar action including StarTrack and FedEx. The 7,000 strong strike could turn into 15,000 if their respective talks take a turn for the worse later in the week.
The truck drivers involved in the industrial action are demanding job security and a 3% pay rise. So far, Toll has agreed to 2%. Toll is struggling to balance worker demands with economic reality in the face of stiff market competition from services like AmazonFlex.
“It takes guts to stand up to your employer and strength to walk off the job, but [truck drivers] know they have no choice,” said the Transport Workers Union National Secretary Michael Kaine.
Alan Beacham, head of Toll’s Global Express, had a different view of the situation.
“Threatening industrial action at a time when our country is in the middle of a global pandemic is playing politics with people’s lives and jobs. Industrial action only benefits the Transport Workers Union, who like to show off in front of their union mates,” said Beacham.
As far as anyone can tell, a handful of truck drivers are attempting to capitalise on these planned strikes to mount their own action against state government Covid health regulations. High profile industry representatives are unaware of any organised strike, but there has been enough noise on social media under the #IStandWithTruckies hashtag to concern Coles and Woolworths, who are watching the situation closely.
“There have been some very vocal advocates for stopping work. The Transport Workers Union are taking on Toll this Friday. People are trying to piggyback onto that, saying that we also need a strike generally,” said Angie Welsh, Director of Straightshot Transport and Small Business Representative for the Australian Trucking Association.
“The people that would normally be the voices running this sort of thing haven’t said anything,” added Mike Williams, ex-outback trucker, co-host for On The Road Podcast, and contributor with BigRigs News. “Rod is a safety advocate and President of the National Road Freighters Association. If anyone was going to be doing anything about this strike, he would be one of the blokes who know about it, but he hasn’t heard anything.”
A GoFundMe page set up for the #IStandWithTruckies event was taken down after it reached $4,000.
While no one can substantiate the threat of a protest against Covid, it is not purely social media noise. Fuel was thrown onto the flames of discontent last week when a miscommunication between National Cabinet, the unions, and local highway patrol police officers led to the closure of truck stops.
The embarrassing incident sparked an intense few days of outrage.
“We have senators on speed dial. We have managed to attract the attention of some pretty high profile people who can make a phone call and talk to the NSW Police Commissioner – which happened on Saturday night over the issue with the interpretation of the health orders where police shut down truck driver restaurants,” said Trevor Warner, National Vice President of the National Road Freighters Association. “To not be able to sit down and to be abused – that was pretty rough. That came down to the police misinterpreting the rules.”
Roadhouses are not out of the woods. While truck drivers are allowed to use them, they have lost the majority of their trade. Highways, particularly in New South Wales, remain empty. This has caused some essential rest stops to close their doors for good.
Confusion and convolution remain a constant for truckers navigating government health orders.
In addition to Covid directives issued by the Chief Health Officers, police manning border checks have to interpret how those rules affect existing transport legislation. Their uncertainty has created inconsistency where truck drivers find themselves turned away and escorted out of the state despite having all their paperwork and permits in order.
“Last week, for three days running, the Queensland freight protocol was changed three times in a row,” said Angie Welsh. “Those are the things that most drivers and businesses are struggling with. Everyone is getting turned back at the borders with police not knowing what is going on – or forgetting that there is a national freight protocol that states are mandating over, causing confusion for everyone trying to cross borders.”
Essential truck drivers have different passes, all of which are subject to change. Long-haul drivers often discover that they are in breach of new rules when they reach their destination because they changed while they were on the road.
Queensland is the state with the most complaints.
“The police have become arrogant and dictatorial [when dealing with truck drivers]. Even though you can show them on the government website what the rules actually are, they just turn around and say, ‘well, that’s not what we’ve been told so turn around and go back’,” said Angie Welsh.
This general frustration is not enough to trigger an independent truck strike, but there is something that might.
There is agreement among those contacted that any attempt to enforce mandatory vaccinations on truck drivers could be enough to trigger a strike.
Support for mandatory vaccination within the trucking community is significantly lower than the general population, according to the opinion of those who deal with the industry. Of those asked, the general view is that a strike would have a 50/50 chance of kicking off.
“I don’t think anything’s going to happen at the moment,” assured Mike Williams. “There are a lot of guys out here that are happy to ‘talk the talk’ but when push comes to shove they won’t ‘walk the walk’. A lot of guys are prepared to be outlaw truckies until it’s time to do outlaw truckie stuff – and then they disappear.”
Angie Welsh agreed.
“I think there would be a lot of drivers that will do it, but there will be even more drivers that want to do it but can’t because of financial reasons – they can’t afford not to work. Once these emergency powers cease, they [the government] can’t keep forcing people to have the vaccination. That said, if vaccinations are made mandatory, most will end up complying because they can’t afford to lose their jobs.”
The trucking industry is not uniform. While small carriers and independent owner/drivers have been severely impacted by Covid restrictions, many of the large haulage companies have increased their business. It is a similar situation to Coles and Woolworths benefiting from their position as government recognised essential services while their smaller competitors are forced to closed.
This dynamic makes it very difficult to conduct a non-union approved strike.
Even at the best of times, a truck blockade is a risky enterprise. Technically, it is easy to pick a choke point on a freeway and block it with half a dozen prime movers worth around $500,000 each. After the Razorback blockade of 1979, the laws were changed to allow police (and the army if necessary) to tow offending vehicles away – a process which causes damage to the rigs.
If you are thinking to yourself that truck drivers could simply stay home in protest and have the same effect on distribution, you’d be right – in theory. In practice there isn’t enough trust in the industry to carry it off.
“They [truck drivers] don’t trust anyone to stop work and stay home. The first thing anyone will tell you about a potential strike is that if people park their rigs at home, the scabbers will keep working,” explained Mike Williams.
This could explain why the noise about strike action is being heard near Sydney where the most damage has been done. It is understandable that independent truckies, abandoned by their peers, might vent their frustration online.
If they could pull off a strike of this nature, the consequences would be serious. Grassroots movements do not have the luxury of a representative in control of calling off the strike. That is why industry experts and partners have their ear to the ground, trying to determine the risk.
Supply chains no longer have robust buffers built into them. The adoption of ‘just in time’ freight helped streamline the industry and reduce costs for everyone involved. On the flip side, it created fragility in the distribution network leaving all of Australia’s essential services vulnerable to disruption.
A strike would only have to last three days before supermarket shelves emptied of basic food supplies. Shortly after, service stations would run out of fuel. Even if normal transport was restored, the system would take weeks to sort itself out – never mind the political nightmare of a panicked population.
It is interesting that anecdotal evidence from social media shows that support for a strike is coming from places like Sydney. Those cheering them on want the supply lines to falter to get the attention of politicians, who have banned them from hosting their own protests under threats of jail and ruinous fines.
Truck drivers hold one of the last cards in the fight for freedom. An unapproved strike is one of the few eventualities that those involved in managing the pandemic actually fear.
While it does not seem likely that Australia will see widespread strikes against Covid, there is plenty of empathy in the industry for those truck drivers who are doing it tough.
“We’ve got a few ex-military drivers working for us and they’re just furious. Aussie blood got spilt for our freedoms and now we’re under this health dictatorship. Our freedom of choice has been taken away and that is really arcing them up," said Trevor Warner.
When asked if she had any advice for the premiers, Angie Welsh replied, “Forget your bloody egos and start looking at more than just the science on Covid, you need to look at the impact generally. Have a look at how much shutting all of the communities down has impacted – not just from a dollar value, but from the human aspect.”
“We have to say ‘on this day we are re-opening’ and let the chips fall where they may. Covid zero is a fantasy – a fool’s errand,” added Mike Williams. “The only way to heal is to reopen and get the country back to work.
“It must be devastating for these people to hang on as long as they can. They’ve drained their savings basically to their last dollar and they’re left destitute. It’s an absolute real thing for those people. I really do feel sorry them. It drives people to suicide knowing that you’re about to lose everything when you’ve done nothing wrong,” added Trevor Warner.