The Great Indiana Trucker Boycott of 1988

December 2018/January 2019

Sandi Soendker

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Could past be prologue?

It was 30 years ago that truckers hauling in and through Indiana said “enough” and set off a series of protest actions that resulted in one of the state’s top 10 news stories of the year. But the consequences made more than headlines. The boycott demonstrated how giving the cold shoulder to key businesses can economically impact a tone-deaf state and translate into legislative solutions.

In the Indiana boycott of 1988, irate truck drivers stopped spending money in the state.

Truckers had long been frustrated with the increased enforcement activities and roadside inspections in the Hoosier State that amounted to mostly harassment. They were furious with the state’s confiscation policy and high penalties for possessing a radio police scanner in the truck. It added up to an anti-truck atmosphere throughout the state, but the real hurt was yet to come.

In early April of that year, Indiana reduced the speed limit for trucks to 55 mph, supposedly in the name of safety, while keeping it 65 mph for cars.

In addition, Indiana’s diesel fuel tax went up a penny to 16 cents a gallon and the diesel surcharge – a hidden tax that didn’t show up at the pump – went from 3 cents to 11 cents. Truckers were now saddled with the highest fuel tax in the nation.

To add to the misery, truck registration fees jumped about 30 percent.

Small-business trucking companies and owner-operators reacted by refusing to fuel in Indiana. Others participated in “legal” convoys going 55 mph that resulted in snarled traffic and angered motorists. More joined in and boycotted truck stop services, restaurants and others who relied on trucker business.

The boycott hit Indiana fuel stops and automotive services hard. By May, sales were dramatically down. As the annual Indianapolis 500 race approached, Associated Press articles reported that state authorities were becoming increasingly nervous. Truckers who were slow convoying all over the state were threatening to do it on I-465 during race weekend.

The whole situation captured the attention of a late night truckin’ disc jockey on WLW Cincinnati known as the Truckin’ Bozo. A trucker at heart, Dale Sommers jumped on board with the boycott and on his WLW radio show, he convincingly pushed truckers to shun Indiana fuel stops.

Every night, The Truckin’ Bozo show stirred the pot, updated the action and provided a platform for incensed drivers. He advised his listeners not to shut down the whole state, as many wanted to do, but to just stop spending money. He gave the truckers a voice, putting them on the air to vent. WLW took plenty of heat because of one of their DJs being credited with such a negative economic impact on a neighboring state. But station management defended him, saying his show was “an island” and he could say what he wanted.

The Truckin’ Bozo ditched any on-air diplomacy when he talked about Indiana Gov. Robert Orr, laying the blame square at the governor’s feet. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Bozo “turned purple” in the face when he talked about Orr and was prolific with his nicknames for the governor.

The all-night radio DJ was clearly getting under Orr’s skin. The Enquirer quoted Orr in a speech to truckers as saying “a guy named Bozo is making fools of you.”

Orr and Indiana legislators had heard complaints but refused to discuss anything with truckers, deciding that any concessions would appear to be caving to truck drivers. As the participation continued to grow, Orr threatened police action if truckers did not drop their boycott.

The truth about ‘NAPTA’

A business called Truck Writers had been formed a couple of years before the boycott to sell truck insurance. It morphed from a truck insurance group to less-than-authentic “organization” when its principals saw the Indiana boycott as an opportunity to make money off truckers. They called themselves the North American Professional Truckers Association or NAPTA.

This unknown and new “trucking” association based in Cincinnati quickly stepped up to claim to be the instigators of the boycott. It was a move sure to boost its membership as well as its bank account. In May, the Indianapolis News reported NAPTA was claiming it had bagged $300,000 in dues.

One of the group’s leaders was a Cincinnati businessman named Gary Bennett. He and a few others were eager to give interviews to the news and were immediately credited as the group that started the boycott.

Bennett was acquainted with the Truckin’ Bozo and allegedly advertised his group’s insurance products on Dale Sommers’ popular show. It seemed a beneficial relationship for Bennett and he even made Sommers an honorary member of NAPTA.

How did ATA get involved?

Where was Indiana Motor Truck Association on the issues? According to an article in the June 1988 issue of Fleet Owner, IMTA said it was “divided” on the speed limits but wanted to take “whichever is safer.”

“IMTA? They are pathetic!” screamed the Truckin’ Bozo.

Bozo’s dander grabbed another gear when the American Trucking Associations held a convention in Indianapolis in May and Orr was the speaker. Bozo explained Orr “went out of his mind on the boycott subject” at the podium, resulting in “dragging the American Trucking Associations into it.” ATA at that point had not commented, but it was no surprise when they sided with Orr and the 55 for trucks. After all, according to Fleet Owner, it was ATA who helped Indiana state officials draft the oppressive replacement tax legislation.

ATA’s position was the likely impetus for a rumor that soon leaked out that the boycott was losing steam, but in a June conversation with OOIDA’s Land Line Magazine, Bozo vehemently reported that it was still “going strong.”

He said that organizers tried numerous times to meet with Orr but it was a “dead end.” Bozo told Land Line that the governor said he just “didn’t want to hear any of the truckers’ cheap demands.”

Losses reported at $1 million a month

Truckers were hopeful that one way to get lawmakers to the table would be to put a pinch on businesses, who would demand their elected representatives do something about their losses. And those losses were enormous. By midyear 1988, the Indianapolis News reported the bout with truckers was costing automotive businesses and fuel stops in Indiana more than $1 million a month. Fuel sales reportedly dropped by a third, and the state’s revenue from fuel-tax collections took a serious hit. Restaurant and sundries revenue were reported to have dropped 40 percent by June.

Indiana news outlets reported that truck stop owners, who were feeling the pain, empathized with their trucking customers and blamed Orr and an ineffective General Assembly. Along with truckers, the supplier associations tried to get Orr to make compromises but they had no success either.

“Orr is a nut, and it’s no use talking to him,” Bozo preached.

He favored talking to gubernatorial hopeful Evan Bayh, who had agreed he would listen to truckers’ concerns.

OOIDA comes off the sidelines

From its headquarters in Grain Valley, Mo., the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association had been watching the convoys and boycott in Indiana closely but had no direct involvement. OOIDA knew Gary Bennett and at the time was offering a truck insurance product to its members through Bennett’s agency.

On July 1, 1988, all that changed. OOIDA’s dealings with Bennett and Truck Writers were severed, and OOIDA’s position on the sidelines of the boycott shifted.

The reason OOIDA kept a low profile in those early months is that OOIDA was indirectly but critically involved in a bitter legal action against the state over a truck decal tax. Indiana lost the case, and that tax was ruled unconstitutional.

This tax case, as it turns out, was the very reason Indiana struck so hard at truckers on April 1, 1988.

The court decision deeply hurt Indiana’s coffers, resulting in a retaliatory punishment doled out to truckers. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer (May 25, 1988), Orr said the increases in diesel fuel tax and truck registration fees implemented on April 1, 1988, were part of a “widely supported legislation designed to replace the $27 million per year lost when the state’s fuel decal tax was declared unconstitutional.”

When the court ruled the fuel decal tax illegal, there was some arguments as to how the refund should go. While refunds were going back to carriers, there was no plan to pass any of it back to the leased owner-operators who had paid it out of their own pockets. OOIDA stepped in.

ATA, the National Private Truck Council and the state of Indiana vigorously opposed OOIDA’s intervention on behalf of owner-operators. Representatives of both ATA and OOIDA were told by the court to work out something they could both accept.

As the negotiations for refunds of state truck taxes teetered, OOIDA president at the time, Jim Johnston, knew OOIDA involvement with a boycott could threaten the successful refund of money to owner-operators who had paid it.

By July 1988, several rounds of discussions on fair refunds had been held and a tentative framework had finally been reached. At the same time, it was clear that truckers who were boycotting were actually being poorly represented in Indiana by NAPTA. The overall situation outweighed Johnston’s concerns over the court tax challenge.

Johnston announced to the membership that the Association had decided to step in.

NAPTA falls apart

Johnston announced OOIDA had met with Indiana truck stop operators and while OOIDA refused to call off the boycott, the Grain Valley-based group knew that working with them was key to resolving the conflict.

The OOIDA president also announced he was severing dealings with Bennett. The insurance dealings went sour, and OOIDA decided NAPTA was not the “legitimate representatives of truckers that they claimed to be.”

Calling NAPTA out as “opportunists,” Johnston said it was obvious to OOIDA’s leadership that Bennett and his group simply got greedy and felt they could profit beyond insurance commissions by setting up a competitive group.

“They took credit for the boycott for personal gain, with little, if any real concern for the issues that truckers were struggling with in Indiana,” Johnston said.

The truck stop operators in Indiana also cut off relations with NAPTA. So did WLW and the Truckin’ Bozo. As OOIDA set up successful meetings with affected Indiana businesses and legislators, NAPTA quietly fell from the headlines.

In March 1989 the Indianapolis Star reported that lawmakers had demanded a probe of the NAPTA group, saying the organizers had failed to show up at crucial meetings and none of the principals could be located.

Johnston said later that he had been informed that the NAPTA office closed and one of the managers “turned out to be a crook and had kept all the money.”

Gary Bennett’s risk retention group, Truck Writers, was in trouble, too. In October 1989, Business Insurance Magazine (of Louisiana), reported that evidence of a forged CD had been uncovered in the risk group’s assets and Bennett was under investigation.

Not an easy decision

OOIDA’s Jim Johnston had no delusions about the risks involved in stepping into the 1988 boycott situation in Indiana.

OOIDA gave credit to Truckin’ Bozo for his tenacious publicizing of the boycott despite pressure from Indiana, but Johnston kept in mind that the protest was initially and amateurishly guided by another group. Johnston also knew if the boycott efforts did not achieve its goal, it would fail, prompting members of OOIDA to lose confidence in its leaders.

He had no assurances that the OOIDA leadership could result in resolution of issues, but Johnston was holding some aces and knew when to play them. OOIDA had a strong membership and known organization. Johnston had Indiana owner-operator Rick Craig, a tenacious member from Anderson, Ind. And he had former owner-operator/Land Line editor Todd Spencer. Both had good relationships with drivers and knew how to talk to Indiana’s automotive suppliers and truck stop owners.

“Boycotts can work, but there must be responsible and well-planned follow-up,” Spencer said. “Solid, continued follow-up. Rick Craig took three months off of the truck to do that, to make things happen.”

So how did it end?

OOIDA began meeting with Indiana State Rep. G. Edward Cook, Kerwin Fry of the Indiana Truck Stop Council, and reps from the Indiana Automotive Services Association on how to really accomplish changes.

They scheduled a number of town hall meetings at places like the Grovertown Truckstop. With Spencer and Craig involved in those talks and meetings, negotiations continued into 1989.

During that year, Evan Bayh was elected governor and legislation was successfully passed that raised the speed limit for trucks over 26,000 pounds from 55 mph to 60 mph.

Craig was at the bill signing on behalf of OOIDA and truckers. LL

 

Sources: OOIDA archives, Jim Johnston’s letters, Owner-Operator News July 1988, Land Line Magazine, Transport Topics, Fleet Owner, AASHTO Journal, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Indianapolis Star, the Indianapolis News, OOIDA President Todd Spencer, Richard L. Craig, Anderson, Ind., The Associated Press, Porter County Vidette-Messenger, The Star Tribune, Business Insurance Magazine.