At 10:00 p.m. on December 3, 1973, a 37-year old trucker from Overland Park, Kansas named J.W. Edwards stopped his rig suddenly in the middle of Interstate I-80 near Blakeslee, Pennsylvania and picked up his CB radio microphone. The insurrection he was about to start, using his now-famous handle “River Rat,” would give America’s independent truckers their first national voice and, along the way, elevate them to folk-hero status.
Edwards was beyond frustrated and scared for his livelihood. His job hauling meat from the Midwest to New York had become an agonizing slog because an oil embargo—levied by the Middle Eastern petroleum-producing cartel OPEC against the United States for its support of Israel—had dramatically jacked up diesel fuel prices. With rationing imposed, he was stopping at every virtually filling station along his route. Worse still, the federal government was considering a national maximum speed limit of 55 m.p.h. For long-haul drivers, time lost meant money lost, and oil geopolitics had made Edwards’s $12,000-a-year job even more precarious. Near Blakeslee, his tank reached empty. Out of fuel, but full of frustration that truckers were the forgotten little guys in the global fossil-fuel wars, Edwards decided, on the spot, to take to his CB and make some noise.
In the 1970s, truck drivers commonly used Citizens Band (CB) radio to alert their fellow big-rig drivers to traffic conditions, choice fueling spots and lurking police traps. Without proper FCC radio licenses and reluctant to announce their real names over the airwaves, truckers assumed fanciful “handles” and developed colorful slang. They called diesel fuel motion lotion. They dubbed toll booths cash registers. Police became bears: Smokey bears for state troopers who wore campaign hats like Smokey the Bear, bears in the air for police helicopters. Feeding the bears meant paying for a ticket—something more truckers were doing due to new speed restrictions. The OPEC embargo accelerated the CB’s popularity, mostly because it allowed drivers to share places to find motion lotion.
The protest goes national
As other truckers stopped to help Edwards, he broadcast via CB that he was blocking the interstate to protest high gas prices, limited fuel supply and the proposed speed limit. Instantly, he found sympathy. One trucker stated, “If a man is going to be broke, he might as well go broke sitting still.” Others, with handles like Flying Dutchman and Captain Zag, soon joined in. Within an hour, hundreds of rigs came to a halt on I-80. The action paralyzed more than 1,000 vehicles in a jam that extended 12 miles in both directions.
News of River Rat’s protest spread, and within hours, trucker demonstrations peppered the nation’s highways, with thousands slowing or stopping their vehicles, snarling travel for miles. By December 4, more than 10 states saw demonstrations by angry drivers who demanded to be heard by the federal government—and weren’t afraid to hold up their deliveries to do so. One quipped that he didn’t think Congress would act “until those people run out of toilet paper.”
The vast majority of dissenting truckers were independents who owned and operated their vehicles, unlike unionized Teamsters who typically hauled for large shipping companies. Independents hauled about 70% of the country’s freight, according to Interstate Commerce Commission estimates. Most had their entire lives mortgaged into their expensive rigs and had the most to lose from the embargo. Ironically, River Rat Edwards was not an owner-operator himself.
Leaders listen, but sit on their hands
The nationwide strikes lasted three days, with the federal government initially shrugging off the problem to the states. Most of the protests were peaceable, but in Ohio, the governor deployed the National Guard to remove trucks by force and use tear gas to disperse recalcitrant drivers.
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Some leaders met with truckers. In Pennsylvania, a sympathetic Governor Milton Shapp sat down with Edwards and his colleagues on December 5. Shapp, whose own first job was driving a coal truck, said he would work to get more fuel allocated for rigs, a promise that temporarily mollified the strikers. In a three-hour meeting in Washington, D.C., Treasury Secretary Claude S. Brinegar also promised relief, impressing Edwards: “He’s as honest as he can possibly be and fair. I don’t believe the Queen of England would have received better treatment.” Afterward, with the help of a high-powered Coast Guard CB transmitter, River Rat broadcast a “cool it” message for several hours, calling to end the strikes. Most, but not all, obeyed.
Truckers get organized
Because these brief protests failed to significantly disrupt the country’s supply chain, government officials sat on their promises. With fuel prices still surging, independent truckers continued their work stoppages, including a two-day strike on December 13 and 14. To keep as many trucks as possible idle, zealous protestors harassed and sabotaged nonparticipating operators, slashing tires, shooting vehicles and in one instance stabbing a driver.
Truckers realized they needed to organize, and almost instantly, dozens of independent trucking associations formed. Edwards himself became the first president of the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, or OOIDA—but didn’t stay long. “J.W. was a colorful guy and could tell a story with the best of them, but he wasn’t an owner-operator,” says Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s current president. “He figured out pretty quickly he was in over his head.”
Protests continued into 1974, culminating in a major strike coordinated among the newly formed trucker associations. On January 31, 1974, commerce ground to a halt as the independents garaged their rigs and blockaded roads. At times they grew violent, dropping bricks off overpasses onto moving rigs.
Truckers gain concessions—and visibility
An agreement between government officials and a six-man team of truckers was finally reached on February 7, 1974 that allowed owner-operators to add a temporary 6 percent fuel surcharge to their freight fees and guaranteed that truck stops would receive additional fuel to meet trucker demand. Acceptance among the different trucking associations was slow, but by February 11, with the feds threatening to send in troops, most rigs rolled back onto the road. The strikes had caused about 100,000 layoffs, several deaths and nationwide food and goods shortages.
For drivers, the disruptions of 1973-4 changed everything. For the first time, government began to recognize small, independent truckers as a force. Groups like OOIDA went on to play a critical role in helping shape rules and regulations, such as fighting corrupt truck-inspection practices and lobbying to repeal the national maximum speed limit. Until then, lawmakers had only heard from the very largest trucking companies, shippers and organized labor, said OOIDA’s Spencer: “People in Washington, D.C. had no idea who all these small-business truckers really were in 1973—that they even existed.”
And despite the violence and disruption, truckers emerged into American consciousness as gritty, colorful folk heroes. As CBs and slang like “10-4, good buddy” gained wider popularity, the lore of the dissident trucker took hold in pop culture, from the Smokey and the Bandit film franchise to 1975’s chart-topping novelty song “Convoy,” which depicted a fleet of antihero drivers battling the “bears.” Ironically, it had taken a slowdown for independent truckers to progress down the road toward recognition.
Joseph A. Williams is the author of Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History and Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster.