While the battle over truck broker transparency and alleged misconduct has cooled somewhat in recent weeks, the fight continues in offices and backrooms in Washington.
Broker-carrier relationships have often been contentious, but tanking spot rates during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic brought with it new allegations of unethical behavior on the part of brokers by small business truckers.
What was initially anticipated as a weekend "May Day" rally in Washington by independent owner-operators evolved into a nearly three-week demonstration that featured a supportive tweet by President Donald Trump and culminated with a meeting at the White House with Mark Meadows, the president's chief of staff.
Meadows, in turn, promised to put his weight behind an inquiry initiated by the U.S. Justice Department into allegations of broker collusion, according to Michael Landis, CEO and co-founder of the United States Transportation Alliance (USTA), who represented independent owner-operators at the White House meeting. Also attending were CJ Karman, CEO of truck driver app Ezlogz, and Jim Mullen, acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Landis is hopeful that the meeting and the investigation, which he confirmed is ongoing, have raised awareness of the issue significantly.
"I was excited, because this is what I've been working for the last few years," Landis told FreightWaves in an interview. He started the nonprofit USTA in June 2018 with the purpose of informing Congress and government officials on ways owner-operators are affected by rules and regulations — ways that he believes those officials aren't hearing about from groups like the American Trucking Associations or the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).
"I've always said, 15-20 minutes with the president's staff, explaining to them our side of the story and why they're not hearing the whole story — that would be big."
Landis said a critical point in the meeting came when Meadows asked if he was looking for any kind of a cap on rates being charged. "I told him no, because that would be un-American. He winked and nodded and said, ‘good, because that can't happen.'"
Landis with his 1999 cabover Peterbilt on the National Mall
Credit: Michael Landis
Those on the other side of the broker misconduct story, however, as represented by the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), have disputed those allegations. Responding to comments by Trump made during the rally that truckers were being price-gouged by brokers, TIA President and CEO Robert Voltmann — who stepped down from the group earlier this month — asserted it was an issue of supply and demand. "In this case, we simply aren't shipping much of anything and there are too many trucks chasing too little freight," Voltmann said.
"I told [Meadows] that people may think that's what's going on, but it's not — because especially right now, those of us who have our own freight that we haul directly are making the same amount as before the pandemic," Landis said. "So I don't want to hear about this being a supply and demand issue."
OOIDA, for its part, sees the lack of broker transparency as an issue on which regulators can have a direct influence. Last month it petitioned the FMCSA to use its authority to enforce current rules as well as add provisions to make broker financial filings more accessible.
USTA, "a small but growing" organization, Landis said, wants to keep the pressure on the administration as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill on several issues. They include thwarting efforts to raise the minimum amount that truckers must have for insurance from $750,000 to $2 million, as well as lobbying efforts to loosen federal restrictions on concealed carry gun laws.
He points out that his group's attire – jeans along with black shirts displaying their name, the USTA patch, and the American flag – have received a lot of attention walking the halls of Congress.
"We don't wear suits and fancy shoes, and we stick out like a sore thumb," Landis said. "Lawmakers say that's a great thing, because if you can stick out in here, people are going to want to know who you are and what you're doing. We've gotten meetings just because of how we dress."
Landis said that whatever the outcome of the current fight over brokers and freight rates, the rally in Washington and the meeting it produced made it worth the effort.
"For me and what we're doing as an organization, that open line of communication we now have with the White House is huge," Landis said. "To be honest, whether or not you agree with the current administration, they're probably the only friends we have."