NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Spear’s address to the annual meeting of the American Trucking Associations was a walk through a whole range of issues affecting the industry, but a pressing one got called out early in his remarks: the looming federal vaccination mandate.
Speaking in Nashville, Tennessee, at the first in-person occurrence of the ATA Management Conference & Exhibition in two years, Spear, the organization’s president and CEO, reviewed the important role of the trucking industry in keeping supplies moving during the pandemic and the possibility that a vaccine mandate might impact the supply of drivers. “Elected officials would be wise to take that into consideration,” Spears said during the general session Monday.
“Stop weaponizing public health by dividing our workforce,” he said, adding that trucking is a “real-world industry” that helped bring the U.S. back from the pandemic.
“Divisible mandates” like a COVID-19 vaccination mandate “are the quickest means of unraveling those gains,” Spear said.
The proposed vaccine mandate has not been published yet. But the broad outlines are that it would impact companies with 100-plus employees and would be administered under the powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Numerous trucking industry officials have expressed fears that the loss of drivers because of the mandate could be extensive and that drivers are made up to a large degree of people who — and this phrase is heard often — don’t like to be told what to do.
Further, larger trucking companies are concerned about losing drivers to companies with less than 100 employees.
Spear was presumably thinking of the vaccine mandate when he said that given the current mix of ships backlogged for offloading, tight worker availability, “a shrinking supply of chips and sensors … and of course COVID itself,” it raises the question of “how much more weight can the supply chain withstand before it starts to crack or even crumble.”
The ATA distributed excerpts of Spear’s speech, but the comments on the vaccine were not included.
Some of the more critical parts of Spear’s speech also targeted the plaintiffs’ bar and the rise of nuclear verdicts. He said the ATA is working with defense attorneys to combat the plaintiffs’ bar and “their reptile justice.”
“We’re alerting defense attorneys of the science and arming them with the proper response,” Spear said. To the plaintiffs’ bar, he added, “This is what defeat looks like.”
Spear also criticized “big labor … those bosses who burn through cash faster than the federal government.”
In particular, he criticized the PRO Act, which among its other provisions would have established the ABC test to help define the legal status of an independent contractor versus an employee. The PRO Act passed the House in March but has run into opposition in the Senate.
“They want to take California’s AB5 to the national stage,” Spear said, a reference to the California law that does embed the ABC test as part of defining an independent contractor in the Golden State. A federal court injunction in place since last year has blocked the implementation of AB5 in the state’s trucking sector but a Supreme Court decision to not grant certiorari of an appeals court ruling would make AB5 operative for California trucking.
The published excerpts of Spear’s remarks also did not contain his criticism of plaintiffs’ attorneys, organized labor or AB5. But they did focus on what Spear wanted to talk about the most: the ATA’s efforts in Washington and what the organization sees as its success in helping to craft the infrastructure act now in front of Congress.
The ATA testified 24 times over the last five years, Spear said. “Our members walked the halls, knocked on doors and made an ask,” he said. “Talk about your voice being heard.”
He called the infrastructure bill “historic, the largest infusion of federal funding into our nation’s bridge network since the creation of the Interstate Highway System.”
But he also praised provisions in the bill that are more trucking specific, such as establishing a women in trucking advisory board at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and funding a Department of Transportation advertisement campaign “to promote the trucking profession.”
Both Spear and other speakers made reference to the flood of good publicity that came last year when in the early days of the pandemic, trucks kept rolling and their importance in the supply chain received a great deal of focus. “In the wake of it all, America responded,” Spear said, “thanking truckers in every state, congressional district and community in the country.”
But now with that image enhanced, Spear said, “Our image is what we make of it. It’s who we are and how we want to be perceived. We need to ride the crest of this wave, steering each challenge toward a favorable outcome.”