Cover Story
Four decades: Fighting the good fight
Why has OOIDA survived and grown while hundreds other trucking organizations have failed? We went to three people who have been members for 30-plus years and asked their insight.

By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer

As many wise men have said, you cannot buy experience; you have to live it. You have to undergo it.

OOIDA was one of the 250 or so owner-operator organizations that emerged in the 1970s. Why did the association that began with an office inside a small trailer chained to a light pole at the Dutchman Truck Stop in Grain Valley, MO, survive? Why did it grow while others failed? Here’s what three 30-year-plus members have to say about that.

Fred Barnes, 77, is an OOIDA life member from Kansas City, MO, and a board director emeritus for the Association. Today, he says he’s not driving over the road but driving his dump truck locally, mostly hauling asphalt. Fred owns his own company and just last year got his own DOT authority. He first attended OOIDA meetings in 1973, before the group became the nation’s largest – and later only – trade association representing the rights of truckers. 

Becoming an owner-operator in 1971, Fred had only the school of hard knocks to teach him about lumpers, about bad business practices of certain major motor carriers, and about keeping up with various state and local regulations.

“Some of the same problems we had then, they’re still fighting,” Fred said. “Problems with lumpers, shippers, problems loading and unloading, the rules and regulations – they’ve solved some of them, but some issues are still there.”

Fred was one of OOIDA’s first members when he joined in March 1974. Back then, the Association’s headquarters was an old construction trailer chained to a light pole in Grain Valley, MO.

Though the buildings have changed, the mission has remained the same, Fred said.

Fred said he’s amazed to think about how far the Association has come, from groups meeting in hotel rooms to an influential voice for truck drivers, including both small-business owners and company drivers.

“It’s due to Jim and Todd, and the other guys up there. They’ve just hung in there and worked their way through it,” Fred said.

Drivers new to the business or new to having their own authority can gain many services through OOIDA, Fred said.

“It’s just a real good deal, especially for a person starting out in the trucking business,” Fred said. “They can help guide your way through getting started. And even if you don’t feel like you need help, it’s like having a family. If anything happens, you’ve got your family members you can fall back on.”

As Fred built his business, he saw the Association’s membership and influence grow as well.

“Over time, people saw they were for real. They weren’t up there just chomping their lips,” Barnes said.

Bob Esler has worked for the Missouri Highway Patrol, served in the U.S. Navy, and worked a host of other jobs. “One year I had 13 jobs,” he said with a laugh. He was talked into his first cartage job in 1968, after talking to someone at a truck stop in Independence, MO.

 “I was convinced I was going to make a million dollars,” said Bob, who lives in Taylor, MI.

But it wasn’t until he got behind the wheel of his first big rig that he knew he’d picked a career.

“My buddy needed me to haul a load of lettuce from St. Louis to northern Missouri,” Bob said. “And driving that V8 CAT – here I am, this kid in this big V8. It got me.”

Bob easily rattles off a long list of trucks he bought, had engine rebuilds, sold or broke down with during his first years in trucking through the mid-1970s.

He says he was traveling through the Kansas City area in 1978 and stopped at OOIDA headquarters. He ended up joining so he could buy insurance for his Kenworth cabover. Before long, Bob became one of OOIDA’s most vocal members.

“Back in those days, a single owner-operator, people always had their hand in your pockets wanting money,” Bob said. “I was kind of a rabble-rouser myself back then – you can ask Jim – and sometimes we didn’t agree, but I always thought I was one who stuck up for the underdog. And at the time OOIDA was the underdog. What can I say; it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

As one of the at least 250 trucking organizations that started in the early 1970s, why has OOIDA survived? Bob said the Association thrived because it provided meaningful benefits such as insurance, advice, and help with leases and contracts.

The key to the Association’s growth, he said, has been its mission to help the driver.

“The focus was always on the member,” Bob said. “It wasn’t about the Association; it was about the member. That was Jimmy’s focus for everything we did. It was never about Jim Johnston, Todd Spencer, Bob Esler; it was always about the member.”

Bob, 67, currently hauls a pneumatic tanker for A&R Transport, Joliet, IL. He’s a fixture at OOIDA board meetings since first being elected to the board in 1980. He also holds the executive office of secretary.

OOIDA will continue to work at beating back repetitive and overly restrictive regulations, and other actions that chip away at truckers’ rights, Bob said.

“Through some of our lawsuits we have been able to show that the owner-operator is not the pushover people thought he once was. … The ball game, or playing field, has changed considerably for the better.”

Ralph Fries, life member from Escondido, CA, went into trucking in 1977 after spending 20 years in the U.S. Navy.

Ralph bought a 1970 three-axle air-tag Freightliner, and hauled primarily household goods on flatbed.

He still remembers walking into OOIDA’s office in 1979 in the middle of a run from Omaha, NE, and plunking down the then-$90 fee to join.

“There were only four people in the office when I joined,” Ralph said. “Jim, Mary, Todd and a receptionist.”

OOIDA’s power was demonstrated, Ralph said, after the Association sued the Tennessee Public Safety Commission for warrantless cab/sleeper searches in the early 1990s, eventually winning the federal case and prompting the state to shut the commission down and move commercial truck enforcement to the state’s Department of Safety.

“That’s when the Association went on a boom,” Ralph said. “That’s when we really started to climb. People saw that a small organization could win over the law, because Tennessee was not the most honest state then.”

Though Ralph rarely went into Tennessee, he remembers truckers’ rights being an issue with several states in the 1970s and through much of the 1990s. Ralph remembered paying Maryland troopers $37.50 on the spot after he was caught hauling an oversize load.

“I thought the load was legal, but they had two guys come running out with a tape measure,” Ralph said. “I had to pay it on the spot, and it could have gone straight into their pocket and I’d never have known. That’s the way it was.”

OOIDA helped Ralph obtain his own authority and become a true owner-operator, allowing him to build a business that later launched his son’s career in trucking. Although Ralph stopped making occasional runs in 2005, his success has allowed him to enjoy spending his retirement studying genealogy and history. He became a board member in 1990 and continues to serve as director emeritus.

Ralph said OOIDA should continue to “do exactly the same as what we’re doing now.”

“If we’re not the champion for truckers’ rights, truckers rights won’t be protected – because no one else will do it,” he said.  LL