Log-truck haulers, legendary for their independence, are banding together to improve their fortunes.

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ONALASKA, Lewis County — Long before dawn, Randy Turner drives his 1988 Peterbuilt truck up a road that winds through thickets of second-growth fir to a dark expanse of ridge-top clearcuts. There, piles of logs await transport to mills.

In the Cascade foothills of Southwest Washington, this is a familiar ritual for Turner and scores of other log-truck haulers, who once thought that a loaded rig moving down the highway would deliver a decent payday.

That faith has been shattered by events of the past decade as the state bowed out of regulating rates, and escalating fuel, maintenance and insurance costs eroded the incomes of many haulers.

Turner began driving at 18. Now at 43 and owning his own truck, he has little to show for his labor. No health insurance, no retirement nest egg, only a constant churn of cash as money earned from hauling Weyerhaeuser logs flies back out to pay bills. Turner said he has only a few hundred dollars stashed in his bank account. “I would be better off to park this thing,” Turner said. “You survive. And that’s about it.”

For Turner and other log-truck haulers, tough times are bringing about some startling changes in attitude. In Northwest timber towns, these contractors are legendary for their independence and sometimes cutthroat competition.

But borrowing a playbook from the unions they once shunned, Turner and other haulers have banded together to improve their fortunes.

They have rallied under the banner of Northwest Log Truckers Cooperative, staging work stoppages last year and again in August that helped gain some modest rate boosts to reflect higher fuel costs. They hold monthly chapter meetings where, over platters of chicken-fried steak and cinnamon rolls the size of Frisbee discs, they talk about the importance of solidarity.

In the months ahead, the cooperative, which claims 315 members in Washington state, plans to take the fight to the Legislature. Co-op leaders want to team up with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and lobby for legislation that would allow haulers to collectively bargain rates with major landowners.

The bill would be modeled after a law passed by the Maine Legislature in 2004 that grants the log-truck haulers a federal antitrust exemption, and authorizes a state agency to be the final arbiter of any contract disputes. If the machinists succeed, the trucking contractors would then bring their employees into the union fold, according to plans now under discussion.

“It may seem strange. We used to pooh-pooh the unions,” said Jim Nielsen, an Enumclaw truck driver and a founder of the cooperative. “But everyone has been pushed so hard for so long that we’ve got to do something.”

Among co-op members, there also is concern about the safety of an aging fleet of trucks, and drivers who, in an attempt to boost their income, may be working 12 to 14 hours or longer each day. This puts some at risk of violating a federal law that limits trucker’s duty shifts to 14 hours of driving and other tasks.

The risks of the road are reflected in the log-trucker death toll — more than 20 since 1991.

Log trucks are subject to state inspection, and some companies, such as Weyerhaeuser, have their own inspections. So far, there is no evidence of a steady upward trend among the fatalities tallied during the past 14 years by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

But two accidents this year have put cooperative members on edge.

On March 18, Ron Corn, a founding member of the cooperative, crashed after a well-worn tire blew and crippled the steering of his truck on Highway 12 near Morton, Lewis County, according to Nielsen.

Then in October, an equipment failure caused a truck to dump logs near Hoquiam, killing two state workers traveling along Highway 101.

Small-town residents

In Southwest Washington, many log haulers live in small communities like Morton, Onalaska, Castle Rock, Pe Ell and Turner’s home town of Toledo.

Many are loyal patrons of the local tire shops, auto-parts shops, grocery stores and restaurants that keep these towns alive. And the log haulers’ weakening wages have contributed to a broader stagnation in a rural Washington economy.

In 1976, near the peak of the region’s late 20th century logging boom, the average per capita income in Lewis County climbed to nearly 98 percent of the national average. By 2003, the county’s per capita income had slumped to just 75 percent of the national average, according to statistics compiled by Gary Smith, an extension economist with Washington State University.

“You can look at a lot of rural counties in this state, and this is the overriding trend,” Smith said. “Their incomes are slipping further behind the national average.”

Through the early ’90s, log haulers’ incomes were propped up by state regulation that set rates based on what the Utilities and Transportation Commission calculated as a fair rate of return. Then, in mid-1994, federal actions pushed the commission out of rate setting, ushering in a new era of competition.

“At first, there was kind of a handshake agreement to try to hold the line. Some became desperate and undercut that handshake,” said Sherrie Bond, the Lewis County cooperative chapter president. “Then it was every man for himself.”

It is difficult to track the drop in trucker’s income in the years that led up to the first co-op protest rally in the spring of 2004 in front of the Tacoma Dome. There is no central clearinghouse where self-employed truckers report their bottom line.

One clue is gleaned from the operators who, rather than drive their own rigs, hire others to do the hauling and report wages to the state.

In Lewis and two other Southwest Washington counties, those drivers suffered a sharp decline in wages from an average of $47,873 in 2002 to $35,695 in 2004, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Employment Security.

In many instances, drivers had to put in much longer hours than in years past to earn those wages, according to Tracy Lutton, who employs 20 drivers in his Lewis County hauling company.

Owner-operators also have struggled.

Turner says his rig — a truck bed and attached trailer known as a “mule train” — grosses more than $90,000 annually. But his net income after expenses has fallen from $35,000 to $40,000 to below $30,000, according to Turner.

These earnings haven’t been enough to pay a $500 a month health-insurance bill for his wife and children. So, he dropped the coverage several years back. Then his teenage son was injured in a four-wheeler wreck, and wracked up $110,000 in hospital bills.

“The hospital has been on me to pay. But it’s like getting blood out of a turnip,” he said.

Major target

As the cooperative campaigns for higher rates, Weyerhaeuser — the state’s largest landowner and mill operator — has emerged as a major target.

In Washington state, Weyerhaeuser moves about half the logs with its own fleet of trucks operated by unionized corporate employees that have health insurance and pension plans. One of them was Turner’s uncle, Corby Turner, who recently retired with full benefits.

Contractors move the rest of the logs. Cooperative officials complain that the Weyerhaeuser pay system is confusing and often offers lower rates than many other mill operators.

“Their rate system is like a puzzle, and there’s always one piece that you can’t figure out,” said Bond, who after a dispute with Weyerhaeuser over rates has largely stopped hauling for the Federal Way company. “It’s a real sad situation, and it’s difficult to make a profit working for them.”

Weyerhaeuser rates are fair, officials say, and have been raised over the years to reflect rising fuel prices as well as other increased costs.

“We do understand what is happening to them (contractors) … and are constantly adjusting our rates,” said Joan Hodgin, a Weyerhaeuser official involved in log-hauling operations who showed up at the October meeting of the Lewis County cooperative chapter to explain the corporate rate and billing system.

Weyerhaeuser officials say they, too, face difficult times that have prompted mill closures and other efforts to improve profits. And they note that there are still plenty of trucking contractors who want to work for the corporation.

One of them is Turner, who says that he needs whatever work Weyerhaeuser has. He just wishes there was more, and it paid better. On many days, Turner says, he must wait in line behind Weyerhaeuser union truckers to pick up a load of logs. And with all the down time, he ends up only able to make two trips to the mill rather than the three that would yield a bigger pay day.

Earlier this year, Turner arose as early as 1 a.m. to make a log run for another mill operator. Then, he would show up at the Weyerhaeuser landing to pick up his first corporate load.

The long days wore him down. So after about a month, he gave up the extra work.

“When I was younger, and in better shape, I could do that,” Turner said. “Now, I don’t feel like I should have to.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com