GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. — Jim Johnston, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) since 1974 and whose name was synonymous with efforts to improve the workplace and lifestyle for thousands of independent contractors, died Monday.
“Jim loved every minute he spent behind the wheel as a trucker, but when circumstances required it in the 1970s he stepped down from behind the wheel to give a badly needed voice to truckers, the real truckers that move America. Every driver today is better off because of that long-ago decision he made,” said Todd Spencer, acting OOIDA president and longtime executive vice president. “Our hearts are very heavy as we pass along this sad news.”
Spencer said Johnston, 78, died following a courageous battle with cancer.
“We are saddened by the news of Jim’s passing,” said Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, an organization with which Johnston and OOIDA frequently disagreed about trucking regulations. “One of the first meetings I had in this role was with Jim and his team. He was a passionate leader for drivers and the industry, advocating issues that helped build this great nation. Jim never strayed from who he was and who he represented — truckers. Jim was a warrior, and he will be missed.”
Jim was born in Summerfield, Massachusetts, on July 23, 1939, to Richard Vernon Johnston and Dorthea Kelley Johnston. He was raised in the Midwest after the family moved to Davenport, Iowa, when Jim was child.
After a tour with the Navy, Johnston drove and dispatched cabs, worked in factories and did other odd jobs.
“The way I got into trucking was a friend of mine drove and I made a trip with him for about 200 miles and I was hooked,” Johnston told The Trucker in a 2012 interview describing how he wound up in the trucking industry.
“I kind of liked the independence of it. I always did like driving. I really thought I wanted to become a truck driver. At that time, it was pretty hard to get a driving job unless you had some experience. I had a thousand dollars and this other dummy knew how to drive one, so we went and bought a truck.”
The partnership lasted about two weeks and “he abandoned ship and I found myself with a truck and I really didn’t know how to drive it yet,” Johnston said.
“I entered into lease with a trucking company that was hauling for International and they supplied the loads both ways,” he recalled. “Getting my license was an experience in itself because I really didn’t know how to drive yet. So, I took that truck out to the licensing bureau and did the written test. I was walking across the street with the officer who was going to take me on my driving test and he asked how I got there and I told him I drove the truck. He was amused.”
Johnston’s passion for the independent contractor began in the early 1970s.
“I had bought a new truck, the first new truck I had bought. It was a 1973 Freightliner,” he said. “I was making pretty good money because that’s when trucking was good. But that’s when the Arab oil embargo hit, prices doubled overnight, there was a fuel ration of 30 to 50 gallons at a time, so you’d buy enough to get you to the next place where you could get more. It was really a nightmare as far as fuel was concerned.”
Truckers protested, one being J.W. Edwards, who pulled his truck across Interstate 80 in Lamar, Pennsylvania.
“A bunch of drivers were sitting in a truck stop up there and decided we just needed to shut these things down,” Johnston told The Trucker. “So he pulled his truck across Interstate 80 and blocked traffic. Really got things rolling. This guy was really over his head in the thing as anybody would be. He started calling folks to come help him and I was one of them. That’s how I ended up going to Washington the first time.
“Mainly at that time it was about the fuel prices and fuel availability and at that point none of us had any intention of starting any kind of association. There were probably about a dozen of us up there during the shutdown having various meetings with senators, Congressmen and cabinet members. Our main contact at that time was through Sen. Bob Dole, who set up meetings with DOT, the Department of Energy, the ICC and the IRS and sort of got some things moving, but not very much. We had about two hours of meetings and he said, ‘OK guys, look here, we’ve only been at it two hours and we’ve got the problem solved already.’ We said, ‘not by a long shot.’”
So, in 1973, OOIDA was established and soon Johnston was thrust into the leadership role.
“I looked around one day and the way I got elected president is everybody else disappeared because nobody else wanted to run an organization either,” Johnston recalled with a chuckle.
“I guess I was too dumb to know I couldn’t do it and too stubborn to quit. I felt I had made commitments to a lot of truckers and while we didn’t have many members at that point I felt the commitment to them because I’d promised them we were going to do something and I just couldn’t walk away from it.”
The licensing and permitting and the size and weight limits were problems for everybody at that time, Johnston said. “We as owner-operators were pretty much on our own. The motor carriers were organized through ATA and they had their own representation. Some of the things that made it difficult to operate actually made it easier for the larger companies because they could deal with those things and it was another way to keep out the competition. The more difficult it is to get into the business, the less competition.”
In 2016, Johnston was diagnosed with lung cancer that required surgery and an aggressive post-operative treatment plan, according to an article in Land Line, OOIDA’s official publication. Despite doctor’s orders, he continued to work as much as possible during radiation and chemotherapy. By the 2017 spring board meeting, he was back to work every day. A bad MRSA — a kind of staph infection — hospitalized him in the spring, but he was back in his office by late summer. In the October 2017 board meeting, he shared his health situation with board members. The cancer was back, he said, and incurable.
He continued to work full time up until only days before his passing
During the 2012 interview, the question was posed, “Are you just going to keep doing this until someone carries you out?”
“We’re going into 38 years now,” Johnston said in 2012. “Possibly someday I’ll retire. I was just elected to another five-year term as president about a year and a half ago. I don’t have any immediate plans for pulling out. There comes a point when someone else can do it better. One of my responsibilities now is to bring the next generation in and get them trained so that this thing doesn’t end when I do.”
Thanks to Jim Johnston, it won’t.