Review: The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream

The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, by Steve Viscelli. University of California Press, 288 pp. Photo: raymondclarkimages, CC-BY-NC 2.0.

Truck drivers seem to have re-entered the public consciousness in 2017—but today our understanding of the occupation is far from the freewheeling “cowboy of the highway” image of the 1970s. It’s also no longer synonymous with “Teamster” or even seen as a desirable job.

These days most talk about truckers centers on self-driving vehicles and the prospect that more than three million professional drivers will be replaced by robots. Business writers excitedly write about how this “cost-saving” technology lies just around the corner, only briefly pausing to consider the social crisis that would be created by laying off so many workers.

As a truck driver myself, I know that so much of what we do is far too complicated to be replaced by technology any time soon. We do a lot more than just hold a steering wheel. We navigate city streets and highways that are perpetually “under construction,” deal with distracted drivers who spend more time looking at their phones than at the road, maneuver impossibly narrow spaces to make deliveries, and back trailers up to dock doors, sometimes across traffic, with no room for error—and that's just what we do from the driver’s seat, not counting time for inspections, dropping and hooking, loading and unloading.

‘THROWAWAY PEOPLE’

This work is undervalued even though it's absolutely crucial to the economy.

As 27-year driver Greg Simmons says in a recent New York Times profile of long-haul truckers, “We’re throwaway people. Nobody cares about us.” Simmons says he feels trapped in an occupation that no longer provides a decent living, thanks to corporate innovations like the pay-by-mile system, which doesn’t account for all the hours drivers get stuck in traffic or wait on trailers to be loaded or unloaded, a process that often takes hours.

For truckers at the ports who move goods from ships to warehouses, the situation is even worse. An in-depth USA Today report (June 20, 2017) exposed the terrible conditions faced by immigrants driving trucks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, describing their situation as “modern-day indentured servitude.”

Many port truckers are locked into lease agreements in which a large portion of their wages goes toward their truck and vehicle maintenance. Their bosses use these leasing agreements to force drivers into punishing schedules, threatening them with losing their truck (and forfeiting all the wages paid into the truck) if they refuse to work beyond the legal maximum hours or if they get sick and can't work. They are also often misclassified as “independent contractors,” depriving drivers of basic protections like overtime compensation, family and medical leave, and unemployment insurance.

WHAT HAPPENED?

How did it get so bad? That’s the question sociologist Steve Viscelli tackles in The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. His book focuses on the long-haul “truckload” segment of the industry, which includes the greatest number of professional drivers today. This is also the segment that has changed the most since the 1970s.

The Big Rig begins with a brief history of how trucking was first regulated in the 1930s, and eventually deregulated in the 1970s and 1980s. Federal regulation created a permit system that encouraged firms to collectively set rates and exempted them from antitrust regulation. This meant fewer companies in the field and a much more profitable environment for investors. It also privileged the “less than truckload” segment of trucking, where mixed freight is loaded onto trailers at terminals. The terminal system, which grouped workers of the same company together on the dock, also gave them more opportunities to organize and take collective action.

Deregulation, beginning with President Carter and continued by Ronald Reagan, did away with the federal permit system and encouraged thousands of new carriers to enter the industry. By dramatically increasing competition, both shipping prices and wages were driven down considerably. It became more affordable for shippers to use “truckload” shipments, where a trailer is filled exclusively with one shipper’s freight and sent directly to its destination, instead of relying on the union-dense “less than truckload” terminals to move smaller shipments.

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Compared with the 1970s, Viscelli notes, long-haul truckers today produce twice as much “output” for wages that are 40 percent lower. In the first decade of deregulation, “the [Teamsters union] lost about 25 percent of its membership, almost 500,000 members.” Viscelli, who comes across as sympathetic to labor, continually makes the connection between the decline of Teamster power and the erosion of all workers’ standards in the industry.

It’s not all dry history and data, though. Viscelli interviewed more than 100 drivers, as well as some company owners and managers. If they can wade through some of the sociological jargon, truck drivers will immediately relate to the interviews excerpted throughout the book. For those who haven’t worked in the industry, the interviews draw a picture of what truckers experience every day.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

That in itself probably would have been enough for a compelling read, but Viscelli went the extra mile—he trained to be a driver and worked for a truckload company for six months. His own stories and journal entries are interwoven with his study.

As a worker in freight and a Teamster, I found the book extremely valuable in explaining how the employers colluded with each other and the federal government to create a new system of labor control that depressed wages and drove the union out of most of the trucking industry. Anyone thinking about organizing the millions of unorganized truck drivers needs to understand what kind of conditions and hardships those workers experience.

But The Big Rig’s message should be of interest to all workers. Viscelli emphasizes that the situation in trucking is far from unique. Employers in nearly every industry have favored deregulation and a more competitive environment over the past four decades, to boost their bottom line at workers’ expense. As these employers compete on the economic field, they collaborate on the political field.

The changes that took place in trucking weren’t just a random assortment of inevitable developments—in Viscelli’s terms, they were a “class project” of the employers that ultimately “changed the very identity of truckers at certain career stages, so they believe they are small business owners and not workers.” “As a result,” he writes, “contractors identify their interests with the interests of the carriers rather than employee truckers, even those working for the same firm.”

The rules of contracting are set up so that workers, believing they are in control, push themselves harder and harder just to capture a piece of the fading “American dream” in the hope that they can one day stop “running” and settle down. But years later, the vast majority of the contractor truckers that Viscelli spoke to were no closer to that goal than when they had started. Some were even further behind and indebted, with marriages and relationships broken along the way because of strain from being on the road for months at a time.

The changes have been so dramatic that we can’t simply put the genie back in the bottle by re-regulating trucking as it was in the 1960s—nor should we expect anything like that to happen while the employers and billionaires have one of their own in the White House. What we need is a “class project” for the working class, one that fortifies our remaining union power at the freight barns, docks, and warehouses where bosses have gotten too comfortable demanding concessions. And we need bold organizing campaigns in freight that combat the lie that workers can get ahead by competing with one another in this rotten setup.

Ryan Haney is a truck driver and member of Teamsters Local 745 in Dallas, Texas.