Frank Black, Opinion

Working as a powerful collective strengthens bargaining power

OPINION: Working together gives owner-drivers the capability to strengthen their bargaining power

Major retailers are finally feeling the heat – whether it’s price-gouging, ripping off farmers, or squeezing transport, everyone knows it’s time for them to pay their fair share.

When we think about the ways in which major retailers engage in cost-cutting and taking shortcuts when it comes to transport to save a buck, we often look at it in the vacuum of our own industry. However, this can be indicative of a wider pattern which affects other sectors, and also flows through to the wider economy.

As widely reported in the media, the Federal Government has appointed former Minister Craig Emerson to head a review into the Grocery Code of Conduct, as it is clear that none of the record profits enjoyed by supermarkets are passed on to our struggling farmers. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched an inquiry into price gouging in 2023 headed by the former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The report found that the power balance between businesses and their customers, the supply chain, and their workers was out of whack.

Reasonable decision-making by clients towards truck operators, farmers and others have a huge influence over safe, fair and sustainable supply chains. Both transport operators and farmers are dependent on major retailers, whether they like it or not. We rely heavily on these wealthy clients for our livelihoods and that keeps us in a vulnerable situation, which highlights the importance of the Closing Loopholes legislation which has just passed both Houses of Parliament. We are often at the mercy of unscrupulous well-resourced and wealthy clients who have unlimited bargaining power and influence in the market. This power imbalance can lead to unfair practices and exploitation and in turn influence safety.

Both transport operators and farmers struggle to negotiate fair prices or contracts leading to financial pressures and are vulnerable to price volatility influenced by major retailers and clients. Farmers often face fluctuating prices for their produce, which can be influenced by big buyers and market dynamics.

Client responsibility

Owner-drivers consistently face a lack of transparency in their dealings with the big end of town. Wealthy clients are in a position where they could theoretically take advantage of contractors, given the latter often don’t have access to complete information about market price contracts for the overall supply chain.

Clients have a lot of responsibility in ensuring enough money is flowing through supply chains for a safe and sustainable road transport industry. This lack of transparency can make it difficult for us to make informed decisions or have the power to negotiate fair terms. For example, we don’t know how long waiting times for loading and unloading are required, which makes it hard to set a reasonable price. There is no current way of recovering that cost if a load takes much longer than predicted.

This is why we need to recognise the importance of collective action when dealing with major retailers and clients. There’s no way a single truck or small fleet operator on their own can take on a formidable multinational and force them to cough up fair and appropriate rates for their goods to be delivered.

Image: Prime Creative Media/Greg Bush

Working as a powerful collective gives workers the capability to strengthen their bargaining and negotiating power. By coming together operators can voice our concerns, share information, and collectively address challenges. This is why it’s fantastic that the Closing Loopholes legislation has recently passed as it can help make our industry fairer through enforceable standards.

Again, anything which affects transport costs inevitably affects our safety as fewer financial pressures mean we’re less likely to rush around. The lack of regulation also affects working practices and conditions, for instance, unsafe and inconsistent loading practices and procedures.

Wealthy clients can’t ignore their responsibilities anymore because standards can apply to the whole of the contract chain. There’s no more room for excuses and no escape from accountability. Finally, we will have the backing of legislation to stop cost-cutting from the top that prevents us being able to negotiate fair rates.

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The struggle with major retailers and clients can have a significant economic flow-on for society at large. If transport operators face financial difficulties or are forced out of business, this can lead to bad safety outcomes, job losses, and a decline in the economy.

To operate safely and professionally, we need the industry to be financially sustainable. The legislation passed because the industry backed it. We came together like never before because we knew something had to be done. The unity we showed as an industry must remain to hold wealthy clients to account and ensure that we can get standards in place as quickly as possible.

The first thing that will kill this opportunity to reform our industry and give us back some bargaining power is if we fight amongst ourselves and tie up the system with disputes. The days of the transport industry being a battlefield should be behind us – meaningful change is possible through cooperation not conflict.

FRANK BLACK has been a long distance owner-driver for more than 30 years. He is a former long-term owner-driver representative on the ATA Council.
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