In the first nationwide trucking strike in 15 years, the Teamsters shut down 22 large trucking companies Wednesday, forcing customers to scramble for available carriers and raising fears of serious disruptions to commerce if the walkout continues.
With no new labor negotiations scheduled, about 75,000 Teamsters across the country walked picket lines outside truck terminals in one of the largest strikes since the mid-1980s. There were only a few reports of scattered, minor violence.
The initial impact was minimal for businesses, but many factories and retail stores--many of which have adopted a policy of keeping lean inventories in recent years--could be vulnerable to shortages if the strike lasts a week or more, transportation observers said.
"If we get into Week 2, inventories start to get drawn down and things start to get serious," said Douglas Rockel, a trucking industry analyst at Merrill Lynch Research. "After two weeks' time, we could start to see shortages and prices might be increased."
The 22 firms paralyzed by the strike move about 18% of the nation's total freight. However, they transport about half of all mid-size shipments over long distances. Nearly every Fortune 500 company and countless smaller firms rely on the companies to deliver everything from auto parts to computers, clothing and home appliances.
But the firms move little in the way of food shipments, which are transported primarily by non-union companies or store-owned fleets.
"We are not making any pickups in the country today," said Kathy Finlen, a spokeswoman for Overland Park, Kan.-based Yellow Freight System, the largest of nation's so-called less-than-truckload carriers, which move shipments primarily of 10,000 pounds or less.
In Orange County, the story was much the same.
"They're on strike here," said Mike Marcourt, office manager of Yellow Freight's Orange terminal. "We're shut down."
Down the street, striking Teamsters gathered at another local truck terminal, toting picket signs that urged support for the job action.
"Our solidarity with the national Teamsters is strong. No matter what, we back each other up," said Raymond R. Robberson, a driver for Consolidated Freightways, a trucking company based in Menlo Park, Calif.
Robberson was among 25 drivers who picketed in front of the company's terminal on Batavia Road in Orange. The drivers vowed to stick with the strike until union officials call it off.
"We'll be here as long as it takes, 24 hours, day and night," Robberson said.
As several motorists passing the strikers honked their horns in solidarity, Robberson predicted the walkout would have a crippling effect throughout the United States.
"Everything you see, everything in your house comes by truck," said Robberson, who is with Teamsters Local 952 in Orange County. "Everyone will feel this sooner or later."
CF Motor Freight of Menlo Park, Calif., said its 500 truck terminals nationwide were closed after its nearly 19,000 Teamster workers walked off their jobs. But a non-union sister company, Con-Way Transportation Services, remained open, a spokeswoman said.
In fact, the majority of the nation's trucking companies, which are not covered by the Teamster contract, and independent truckers remained open Wednesday and reported a stream of new customers seeking available space.
Roy Ecclefield, operations manager for California Transportation Service in Laguna Niguel, hoped the potentially devastating strike would mean a financial windfall for his firm. California Transportation Service uses non-union drivers to ship everything from canned food to machine parts.
Ecclefield said on Wednesday morning that he received an unexpected shipping order from a company frantic to get its products on the road. He expected similar orders in the next few days.
"They're going to call us," he said. "If everyone else is down, they got nowhere else to go. I'm sure business will pick up."
Like other companies eager to forestall any shipping slowdown, Ingram Micro Inc., one of the world's largest distributors of microcomputer products, anticipated the strike.
A company spokeswoman said that warehouse managers began calling non-union trucking companies to take up the slack created by the strike. The company normally uses both union and non-union drivers.
The Santa Ana-based company, consequently, had experienced no problems on Wednesday and did not anticipate any if the strike continues.
"We wanted to ensure no disruption in our service and there has not been," the spokeswoman said.
Other non-union trucking companies were also feeling the effects.
"We are getting a tremendous influx of additional freight volume," said Jeff Jordan, a spokesman for Overnite Transportation, a large non-union trucking company with headquarters in Richmond, Va.
Jordan said the company will put workers on overtime and run its trucks to handle the additional orders, but some shipments may have to wait. "We are at or near capacity in most places."