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Big Job

by Rolf Lockwood

You might almost call it inevitable that Calgary's Dave Marson would be the first leader of the Owner-Operator's Business Association of Canada (Association professionnelle des routiers autonomes du Canada). He's had 24 years in trucking, and through most of that stretch he's been involved somehow or other in the politics of it. You can accurately call him an activist, and certainly a contributor. He's presently a lease-operator with ECL's general freight division.

One of the four men who set about last year to finally get the association rolling, Marson later helped create the rest of the new OBAC board of directors as its chairman. It was no surprise that his fellow directors asked him to take on the presidency and spokesman role as well. He says he accepted a little reluctantly, knowing how big were the expectations. And how much he might have to deal with the press!

But he's been around the block, as they say, having spent his early working years in the Canadian Armed Forces where he got started in trucking. He took his first driver-training course while still a cadet, and later became a transportation operator for the 33rd Service Battalion out of Halifax. Much later you could have seen him at the front line of the owner-operator protests back in the early 1990s. There was subsequent work with some of the long-gone western owner-op associations, and a stint as the Canadian representative for the powerful Owner Operator and Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) based in Missouri. He's a lifetime member of that wildly successful 80,000-member organization.

Marson, now in his mid-40s, also served a term as vice president of the Alberta Trucking Industry Safety Association, and was one of its founding members. More recently he could be seen joining the debate on hours-of-service reform in Canada, testifying at several Transport Canada task-force hearings. In fact, his name is very well known in trucking's 'official' circles, and that's no bad thing for the point-man of an organization that aims to lobby for change.

Among Marson's important other roles, there's his frequent weekend work - with orange wig and white-face make-up - as Pokey the clown. He does the usual birthday parties and parades, but his favorite audience is sick kids in a Calgary hospital. As we reported in our profile of his non-trucking activities in the March issue earlier this year, he's also one of the most sought-after Santas in the Calgary area.

And now he may have taken on the toughest job of his entire career.

We caught up with President Marson recently while he waited for a load in Cambridge, Ont., and we asked what he wanted OBAC to be.

"Where I'd like it to go is an association similar to what OOIDA is in the United States. It's always been a dream of mine to have owner-operators well represented," he says. "I think we need to be a clearing house for contracts, for education and lobbying. I'd like to see OBAC represent the industry in a good light as well as the bad, recognizing good carriers, good shippers, and identifying the ones who are really bad while educating the owner-operator about who to work for and who not to work for. Because there are good carriers out there."

Asked what the key issues are for the new association, Marson predictably offered a long list.

"We're identifying the key issues," he told me, "but I think they have to come from the members as well as the board of directors. We'll be thinking about carrier safety ratings and how they apply to owner-operators, for example, and how to best deal with load brokers. Cabotage on both sides of the border still seems to be an issue, as well as clarifying insurance regulations and how they apply to owner-operators."

Others on his list: independent vs. contractor or employee status; border crossings; uniform weights and dimensions ("though that's going to be a tough one for us to crack"), trip-inspection reform, infrastructure improvements vs. government funding of the railroads, workers compensation, and graduated licensing.

"There are several that really turn my own crank," he said. "Contracts are one of those. You can go to 100 different carriers and get 100 different variations on the contract. You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to figure some of them out. That's a big issue.

"As far as getting rates up, that's not our job. What we have to do is educate the owner-operator as to which contract to sign, who to sign on with, and what their operational costs really are so they don't get into those situations where they have more payables than receivables."

Another big one is the thorny matter of shipper responsibility.

"Shippers right now have absolutely no responsibility," Marson said. "You know, a guy shows up and says he's out of hours but they don't give a hoot, and all of a sudden the contract's in jeopardy because the customer doesn't care. The carrier ends up backed into a corner and maybe forced to break a law you don't want to break, and the shipper's just laughing all the way to the bank. Nine times out of 10 that's not a carrier problem, so shippers have to be educated as well.

"That's where we have to be very vocal. We don't want to attack them, we want to educate them.

"Education is a big part of what we need to do," he continued, explaining that the coming OBAC website will be a key part of that process, as well as possibly working with the Canadian Truckling Human Resource Council, with carriers and with governments. Plans aren't specific at this point

Research will form an important foundation for OBAC's lobbying work, he went on. "I mean researching the issues the way OOIDA does. Any time there's an issue that comes up, they thoroughly examine it and find out what the real problem is before they make an opinion on it."

As to membership, he'd like to see the association's roster reach the 5000 mark some day, though he's well aware it won't happen overnight.

"You've got to have programs in place to attract members," Marson said. "You have to be able to show them that you're making a difference, and that you are representing their interests.

"We're starting off with a membership fee of $120 a year. We were kicking around $240 but we thought that might be a little high going in, and it might be tough even getting the $120. But that won't cover much more than mailing out newsletters. It's the programs that we get involved with that will have to generate money for the association. They'll have to be very good, well structured programs developed in-house and run by the association if we're to attract that revenue and provide a benefit to the members that they wouldn't otherwise get."

Despite OBAC's name, Marson says employee drivers will be welcome as equal members, calling it "a key element to our success... A lot of drivers would like to own their own truck eventually, and we'd be a very good tool to help them make the right choices as they move forward. Also, a lot of the issues that we'll be addressing over the years will directly involve the driver. And hopefully some of the programs that we have will be beneficial to drivers as well. Some of the issues will be different, but as far as lumping issues and waiting time are concerned, for example, they directly affect drivers too."

To sum it up, Marson is confident but certainly not cocky, and he definitely sees OBAC's future in terms of a collective effort.

"This is by no means the Dave Marson show, in no way shape or form. I'm very humbled to be the president of this association. There's no 'i' in 'team'.

"I believe we can effect change, but we have to do it together," he said. "I'm going to give 'er my best shot. I'm here for all the right reasons, I'm not a pig at the trough. I made it perfectly clear at the first board meeting, that if anyone was there for personal profit and gain, they might as well pack their bags and go home. That's not what we're here for; we're here to help owner-operators and drivers. And I'm one of them."

The words ring true.

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