February 1974: Violence spreads after independent truckers go on strike

Posted 2/8/19

A photo of two Jasper Jr. High School students, Jeff Best and Joe Justice, riding their unicycles to school in the Feb. 6, 1974, was the only lighthearted report that the Daily Mountain Eagle could …

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February 1974: Violence spreads after independent truckers go on strike

Posted

A photo of two Jasper Jr. High School students, Jeff Best and Joe Justice, riding their unicycles to school in the Feb. 6, 1974, was the only lighthearted report that the Daily Mountain Eagle could muster on the gas shortage sweeping the country.

The ongoing shortage was compounded by a strike of independent truckers that had begun on Jan. 31.

Independent truckers accounted for a quarter of the nation's 400,000 truck drivers, according to a New York Times article from the time. As part of the strike, they not only parked their rigs but forcibly prevented truck stops from selling fuel. 

At least one major Birmingham area truck stop shut down its gas pumps at midnight when the strike began in hopes of steering clear of trouble. Those that did not, like the Parkway Truck Stop in Mobile, soon found themselves blockaded by 100 or more trucks.

According to the Times, the strike had been sparked by "recent legislation raising the federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, imposing excise taxes on heavy equipment and increasing registration fees for large trucks."

The Eagle listed a series of demands made by the truckers: lower fuel prices, higher freight rates, higher speed limits, higher weight limits, adequate fuel supplies at truck stop and guarantees that increased costs can be passed to the consumer.

The strike descended into violence within the first few days.

On Feb. 4, 1974, the Eagle printed an unconfirmed report that one or more freight line trucks had been fired upon in Jasper. In addition, someone had shot at a truck loaded with gasoline near Natural Bridge in Winston County. The truck had been hit in the rear bumper.  and one of its tires had been shot out.

Between 15 and 20 reports of gunfire directed at trucks came in from around the state in one weekend.

David Edwards, a spokesman for the Mobile Independent Truckers, said the protest would not end any time soon.

"With prices and taxes like they are, we're dying anyway, so we're shutting down until we get results," Edwards said.

On Feb. 5, the Eagle's front page included a photo of drivers lined up for what little gas remained at a Sumiton service station. The caption said the scene "resembles the starting point for a parade as drivers strive to get tanked up before the pumps go dry."

On the same day, the Eagle printed a photo of the damage that had been done to a tractor-trailer traveling through Lynn. The driver and his passenger reported that someone with a high-powered rifle had fired upon the truck from steep banks on Highway 5. The truck was hit below the radiator and on the left front tire rim.

The two men stoped at Jasper Drive-in to report the incident and then continued on to Georgia.

On Feb. 6, the superintendents of the Walker County and Carbon Hill school systems decided to shut down their schools at the end of the week. Jasper City schools remained open.

On Feb. 7, the Eagle assured readers that there was no food shortage in spite of panicky customers clearing local grocery shelves.

Brunos manager Wayne Swindle reported that the store had sold out of milk and bread for two days in a row but was otherwise in good shape.

Swindle added that he had heard one of the store's bread trucks had been stopped near Eldridge and threatened, but he wasn't sure of the incident.

Foodworld's Johnny Harris said deliveries were "three or four hours late but still coming in."

Jerry Cooner of Kwik Check said people were overreacting. "We're not having any trouble getting merchandise, and we have plenty of stock. We're just having trouble keeping it on the shelves. I don't think the panic is justified. It's just not that bad," Cooner said.

Most independent truckers ceased the strike on Feb. 11.

The New York Times reported that two drivers had been killed and 100,000 workers had been unemployed during the 11-day strike. 

The Eagle denounced the truckers as terrorists in a Feb. 12 editorial.

"If the truckers think their action is going to provide them with more and cheaper fuel, their logic escapes us. Everyone who drives a car, heats a home or pays a utility bill also would like some relief from the effects of the fuel shortage. The public response to these strong-arm tactics is likely to be a clamor to send truckers to the end of the line."

There were more strikes in 1979 and 1983. The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the industry.

A recent article on the History Channel's website points out that the strike created unlikely folk heroes out of roughneck truckers sticking it to the man.

"Convoy," the truckers' anthem, became a No. 1 hit on the pop and country charts in November 1975 — nearly two years after the strike. 

Of course, no law-breaking truckers were ever more endearing than Snowman and the Bandit, who first appeared on the screen driving one particular Smokey crazy in 1977.


Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.