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Small trucker fights Teamsters, cites deregulation

BANGOR, Maine -- The owner of a small, private trucking company has picked a fight with the powerful Teamsters union by refusing to pay the wages called for under the latest union agreement.

Galen Cole of Coles Express trucking company has refused to sign the latest three-year Teamsters contract governing truck drivers and freight handlers, saying he can't afford to pay the $19 an hour in wages and benefits under the new contract.

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As a result, about 100 of Coles Express' 120 employees went on strike earlier this month.

Cole, whose family business has been operating for 65 years, has since replaced them with non-union truckers.

Although there's been reports of scattered violence at Coles' terminals across the state, the firebrand businessman is still moving freight.

'This is an extremely significant case to both sides -- one that the union and every trucking company in the country is watching,' Portland lawyer Herbert H. Bennett, who represents management in labor disputes, said.

'He (Cole) is taking on what is probably the most powerful union in the country,' Bennett said.

Cole tried to negotiate a separate contract with the local Teamsters union, but those talks broke down a few weeks ago.

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The rise in competition since deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980 has made it impossible to pay union wages, Cole said.

'The multitude of new intrastate competition demands that we receive a contract below the national level,' Cole said.

Statistics show the trucking industry in Maine has become more competitive since deregulation. Last year, there were 2,652 interstate trucking companies registered in Maine, the Public Safety Department reported. This year another 800 firms registered to carry goods through the state.

As for intrastate trucking firms, there were 345 operators last year and 71 more companies have obtained licenses this year.

'I'm going to tell my men that I will pay them a wage higher than the average union wage in Maine industry, but that's the best I can do under the new situation,' Cole said.

Cole has reportedly paid the non-union workers about $16 an hour in wages and benefits, which was his final offer to the Teamster union local.

Roy Williams, president of the Teamsters, said the higher wages under the new contract are needed to offset the loss of union jobs since deregulation.

The contract 'protects Teamster jobs while hopefully restoring losses caused by deregulation of the trucking industry,' Williams said.

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