As Tuesday morning dawned in Tampa, about 45 independent truckers rolled their big rigs into a parking lot near Tampa's port to protest an economic vise they say is tightening around them.
While the cost of diesel fuel has skyrocketed to about $4 a gallon, up 42 percent from a year ago, the truckers say their pay has stayed the same. The middlemen who hire independent owner-operators are tacking fuel surcharges onto their customers' bills, truckers say. But in most cases, they say, the extra cash isn't making its way to the guys who pay the price at the pump.
Loosely organized protests — linked by CB radios and trucker Web sites — flared up sporadically around the nation on Tuesday to coincide with a congressional hearing on high gasoline prices. But if the disruption was relatively minor, the protesters made their point.
"What I'm being squeezed for now is more than I can afford," Kenneth Beersingh, 43, of Tampa, said. "I'm about to lose everything I have."
On Monday, Beersingh, a trucker for 22 years, hauled a load of fabric from Tampa's port to Lake Wales. His carrier paid him $160, but his truck burned up 25 gallons of diesel. "That's $100, right off the top," he complained.
Beersingh and fellow drivers are trying to cope with diesel prices that have risen to historic highs while they're burning fuel at the rate of about 6 miles per gallon. Propelled by increased demand from China and Europe as well as higher crude oil prices and refining costs, diesel is routinely eating up 80 percent or more of an independent trucker's pay. And that's before factoring in the rising costs for oil changes and tires.
Net income for independent truckers has averaged about $40,000 a year, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, but that figure is dwindling fast.
Jorge Cid, 51, of Tampa, is so fed up he's turning down jobs.
"We're still getting the same pay today as we were when diesel was $1 a gallon," he said. "If a load is just enough to pay the fuel and make a few bucks, I'll stay home."
Around the country, the protest took shape in different ways in isolated incidents.
On the New Jersey Turnpike, southbound rigs were moving at about 20 mph near Newark, according to a Turnpike Authority spokesman. Outside Chicago, three truck drivers were ticketed on Interstate 55 for impeding traffic by driving three abreast at low speeds.
In Washington, meanwhile, Congress grilled top executives of the five biggest U.S. oil companies. Though they acknowledged high fuel prices are hurting consumers, they argued that their profits -— $123-billion last year —- were in line with other industries as a percent of revenue.
Teamsters union officials said they had nothing to do with the protests, and the independent drivers' trade association also steered clear of the fracas. A message on the Web site of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said, "Even though federal law prohibits OOIDA from calling for a strike because it is a trade association, OOIDA will always do its best to represent the interest of its members."
Among the association's proposals is legislation that would call for disclosure of fuel surcharges and a 100 percent pass-through to the person who pays for fuel. That would go a long way toward satisfying truckers like Alex Hernandez of Tampa.
"The brokers, they raise the prices to the customers, but they don't pass it on to us," he said. "I have two tanks that hold 150 gallons each. That's 300 gallons. You can do the math."
Drivers mentioned several carriers as culprits in the surcharge squeeze. Among them: Landstar Carrier Group of Jacksonville and Intermodal Shipping Services of Tampa. Neither firm returned phone calls requesting comment.
David Minaya, an independent operator in Riverview, said drivers never know how much the customer is being charged. "We're the ones who move the merchandise," he said. "But who's getting the money?"
JW Watson Trucking, a Tampa carrier that handles container shipments out of the Tampa port, said it has been passing 100 percent of the fuel surcharge along to drivers for about the past two years. The amount changes weekly; currently it amounts to a 35 percent bonus on the driver's weekly gross pay, up from 25 percent a month ago. Mary Lobdell, general manager, said her company supported Tuesday's action, shutting down for the day and urging drivers to attend the protest.
"We've got a great group of about 30 independent drivers, and we have a lot of respect for them," Lobdell said. "It may not be illegal for carriers to hold onto the surcharge, but to me, it's not morally right."
Though JW Watson's drivers will be back at work today, other independent operators expect to gather again at 8 a.m. to protest. They hope the movement will spread.
On Tuesday, the group dispersed around noon, soon after TV reporters departed. Forty-five diesel engines growled to life. Someone honked his air horn. Then another. Then a dozen, creating a moment of festive bedlam before the truckers rumbled into the streets.
Information from wire services was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.