Its Deregulation Stupid...

by Dennis Shipman
(Newburgh, NY)

Often as we navigate skillfully around preoccupied four wheelers pulling stunts on the big road, we hear uninformed chatter on our CBs relative to how our country, the trucking industry, and our way of life is going to hell in a hand basket. Some drivers unfairly lay blame for this situation squarely at the foot of our current President.

But a great deal of the criticism of the Obama administration is simply misguided, motivated by racism, and, consequently, wholly inaccurate. Motor carrier deregulation was a part of a sweeping reduction in price and entry controls and collective vendor price fixing in the transportation industry, which begun in
the 1970s with initiatives by the Richard Nixon Administration, carried out through the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Administrations, respectively; and, followed up on in the 1980s, which is now collectively seen as trucking deregulation.

Most of the problem stems from young, inexperienced, and unsophisticated drivers from the Deep South where there is little well paying work, immigrants and other hard-to-employ populations willing to pull all nighters for minimum wage. Not knowing their worth, they ignorantly conspire with venal corporate trucking companies engaged in a race to the bottom relative to driver wages and owner operator revenue percentages by taking virtually anything offered.

I recently had a fleet owner tell me with a straight face that he "starts" his "drivers" off with .21/mile, and if they show productivity after 5 years, boosts it up by a half cent. Although that is slavery by any objective measure, there are drivers out there stupid enough to take it, or the guy would not still be in business! There is no conceivable way an average over-the-road company driver should not be grossing 100k/year given the sheer toil, disruption to his home life, and work on the road requires, period.

When I started in the industry as a young, wild kid finding his way in life, I worked for any number of household carriers commonly known as moving companies. I will never forget a conversation I had with one driver in the 80s where he bragged about making over 300k the year prior subcontracting for a moving company as an owner operator. This was in 1980! I still distinctly remember the brand new conventional Pete with the 444 Cummins he was sporting.

Michael H. Belzer, a former long-haul trucker who now teaches industrial relations at Wayne State University, argues persuasively in his seminal book "Sweatshop on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation," (Oxford University Press, 2000) that drivers are fully responsible for allowing companies, vendors and brokers (see 'Onus of Operators' for more on brokers) to take advantage of them in the manner they have driving - pun intended - wages down relentlessly while increasing productivity on the bowed backs of hardworking men and women just wanting to provide for their families.

US News & World Report asked the question, "low pay in the trucking industry making the nation's roads unsafe ? With the U.S. economy booming and the demand for drivers mounting, why haven't working conditions for truckers improved?"

The Washington Post echoed that sentiment writing "conditions are so poor and the pay system so unfair that long-haul companies compete with the fast-food industry - e.g., Burger King - for workers. Most long-haul carriers experience 100% annual driver turnover!" Schneider actually used to have a television commercial where a driver frying chicken mused about driving jobs. You cannot make this stuff up.

Hervy's - the Crazy Trucker, and owner of "Life As A Trucker" - own Atlanta Constitution wrote "The cabs of 18-wheelers have become the sweatshops of the new millennium, with some truckers toiling up to 80 hours per week for what amounts to barely more than the minimum wage."

In the years following deregulation in 1980, median truck driver earnings have dropped 45%, and most over-the-road drivers earn less than half of pre-regulation wages. Work weeks average more than eighty hours. Today, America's long-haul truckers are working harder and earning less than at any time during the last four decades.

I have walked away from too many companies wanting me to switch out multiple trailers after running all day while only paying mileage. Switching out trailers, shifting axles, doing paperwork, fueling and inspecting your equipment is work. Any work you do in any other profession you are fully compensated. Only in trucking are you supposed to switch out trailers, shift axles, do paperwork, fuel and inspect your equipment on your own dime. But we often hear misguided drivers justifying their own indentured servitude by saying "be glad you got a job." Huh? There was once a group of people in these United States who toiled day and night, 21-14 hours per day, under the most brutal conditions imaginable. I do not believe them to be synonymous with truckers and, more importantly, happy they had a job. . .

I not only work to support my family but to earn enough to live comfortably in that little house with the white picket fence; not out on the road for so long that I drive past my house because I forgot where it is; or, walk past my kids because I did not recognize them, or bring home $250 after being on the road for 3 weeks; and, being forced to take advances just to eat an overpriced, bad meal in a choke and puke run by chain conglomerates? preying on tired, overworked, lonely and hungry drivers employing lot lizards masquerading as waitresses.

Steven Robert Zellers makes similar arguments in his irreverent, zany but on-the-money book entitled "The Truth about Trucking" (Wordwizard Publishing, 2006). Zellers writes painfully about how he came home unexpectedly after 5 weeks out only to find his beloved wife clasped in the buck of an abnormally well endowed neighbor, which doubtless surprised everyone. And illustrates the darkside of trucking: long absenses from home, do not always make the heart grow fonder.

"Sweatshops on Wheels," moreover, raises crucial questions about the legacy of trucking deregulation in America and casts provocative new light on the issue of government deregulation in general. It is a must read for any person considering trucking as a career. Because you will be competing not with the best and the brightest but the worst and the stupidest. If you do not believe me, just turn on channel 19 for a few minutes.

It is up to the few professionals left standing in our beloved industry to lead reform efforts, making shippers and vendors pay for detention time (an article I plan on tackling next), hourly for any work done off-the-road, and demanding higher wages or settlement agreements and, most importantly, lower fuel prices.

These modest objectives can be obtained if we wield our considerable power as truckers collectively and not necessary shut the country down, but organize efforts to show the petro-chemical companies, shippers, vendors, end-users, and trucking companies that we mean business. 10-4?

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