Week In Review October 15

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Oct 152017

  by Bill Onasch

End of the Road

That’s the title of an excellent piece in The Guardian by Dominic Rushe focusing on over-the-road truck drivers. As well as being one of the most romanticized occupations it is the most numerous job title in the world’s biggest economy—1.8 million of them pilot their big rigs on public streets and highways. Another 1.7 million workers drive buses, taxis, and delivery vehicles.

Their size and strategic importance within the overall economy will be crucial to the record breaking growth promised by Trump as a result of his tax cut, budget and deregulation policies. But, as this article discusses, big changes in this sector are looming that could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.


The explosive growth of trucks replacing rail in moving most cargoes that began in the second half of the last century largely evaded unionism. The Teamsters Freight Division now claims only 75,000 members–and this includes dock workers, mechanics and some office personnel as well as drivers.

Many OTR drivers are “independent contractors.” Because of the expense of tractors, a lot of them enter in to lease agreements with freight companies who require they only haul loads for them. Lease, fuel, and toll expenses are deducted from payments for work. Because they are self-employed, the “independents” have to pay both employer and employee contributions for Social Security, Medicare, Worker Comp, and even unemployment benefit funds.

In 1980, the average trucker earned 38,618 dollars a year. Adjusting for inflation that would be 114,722 today. But the actual current average is only 41,340. For many self-employed drivers, if all hours of work, and idleness waiting for work away from home, are counted they are toiling for less than minimum wage and no benefits.

In a May 2016 article in The Atlantic, Steve Viscelli wrote,

How did the industry get this way? Things began to change radically when Jimmy Carter started to deregulate the industry in the late 1970s. Under regulation, competition was limited and common rates were set, and all but agricultural products required federal authority to haul. Deregulation, then, created intense competition and plummeting rates for truckers. By the early ‘80s, the industry was in turmoil, with employers slashing wages and busting the Teamsters union to cut costs. At the same time, bigger and more sophisticated shippers were demanding that freight move farther and faster, further degrading trucking jobs.”

Despite the help of Democrat “friends of labor” in this severe downgrading of once attractive “middle class” jobs, the employers are not satisfied that labor costs are still a third of their annual 700 billion dollar industry—and 75 percent of that third goes to drivers. Rushe explains how Silicon Valley is aiming to replace drivers with technology just as has been massively done in manufacturing, retail, rail yards, music, and even journalism.

There is great incentive for the bosses to make the big initial capital investment. In addition to eliminating wages and benefits, computers don’t have to sleep, eat, use a rest room, are not tempted by alcoholic beverages—and never organize unions.

Among those Rushe interviewed is former truck driver Finn Murphy who wrote a popular autobiography of his work life, The Long Haul. Murphy told him,

The only human beings left in the modern supply chain are truck drivers. If you go to a modern warehouse now, say Amazon or Walmart, the trucks are unloaded by machines, the trucks are loaded by machines, they are put into the warehouse by machines. Then there is a guy, probably making $10 an hour, with a load of screens watching these machines. Then what you have is a truckers’ lounge with 20 or 30 guys standing around getting paid. And that drives the supply chain people nuts.”

There are already driverless cars and local delivery trucks in limited operation. Uber owns Otto, an automated truck company that expanded their horizon to over-the-road when they moved 45,000 cans of Budweiser 130 miles from Ft Collins to Colorado Springs last year. There have been much bigger successful tests in Europe.

Murphy believes there will be the equivalent of a “space race” to widely apply this technology to highway rigs—perhaps taking hold within the next five years. But he acknowledges that most of his fellow drivers still think they cannot be replaced–“Just me and Elon Musk, I guess.” (Musk is the multi-billionaire inventor-capitalist of Space X and Tesla fame.)

Rushe interviewed another veteran over-the-road driver, Douglas Barry who raised one powerful obstacle to no-human-on-board 18-wheelers—public acceptance of sharing the road with 80,000 pounds hurdling along vulnerable to computer glitch or hacking. But Barry continues with a broader vision,

He says the involvement of the tech companies has stopped people from looking for more holistic solutions to transportation problems. The answer is better roads, more delivery points for trains, streamlining the supply system – not just looking for ways of cutting manpower.”

There’s no argument against the need for better, less congested roads. But the “holistic” perspective should be much wider yet.

There would also be great environmental benefits if most goods and people now moving on highways traveled by rail—enhanced further where rail is electrified. And if that electricity was generated by clean, renewable fuels—well you get my drift.

Lives would be saved as well. Presently, there are more than 41,000 traffic fatalities every year—more than all American deaths in the three years of the Korean War—the overwhelming majority due to driver error. While nonprofessionals are the biggest culprit truck driver fatigue is also a significant problem.

Lobbying by the Teamsters finally convinced the Obama administration near its end to make some modest improvements in Hours of Service regulations—bitterly opposed by the American Trucking Association. Team Trump has already suspended one rule change and consigned others to “further study.” Last Wednesday, a grateful ATA assembled a big crowd that included some drivers in a hangar at an Air National Guard base in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to hear the Truckers’ Friend in the White House. Trump modestly disclosed,

Since January of this year, we have slashed job-killing red tape all across our economy. We have stopped or eliminated more regulations in the last eight months than any President has done during an entire term. (Applause.) It’s not even close. That includes eliminating the regulations that drive up the cost of energy. We want low-cost fuel for our truckers and for our families all across this country. And we are just getting started, believe me — just getting started. (Applause.)”

Certainly there is much grumbling among drivers about the paper work they must keep current and mandated rest time that is usually unpaid. But neither Trump nor the ATA give a rodent’s rear end about the drivers’ complaints. Trump’s deregulation is aimed to intensify the exploitation of drivers—until they can be replaced with computers. In the meantime there will still be carnage on the road.

There are effective measures that can prevent many driver errors without eliminating the driver. Most new cars now have optional computer controlled features such as emergency braking when collision seems imminent and automatic correction of drifting in to another lane. Some even offer hands-free parallel parking. Car companies could do more by eliminating such distractions as prominent Internet-connected touch screens. While not fullproof, this technology that watches and compensates for dangerous inattention should be standard equipment on all vehicles, including trucks.


Since the days of the much maligned Luddites, capitalists have preached that opposition to technology is futile. Except for a UPS delivery wagon on Mackinac Island where most motorized vehicles are banned, no Teamsters today work with horses. But they quickly adapted to the introduction of motor trucks while keeping the same cool horse head logo. Organizing onboard computers, however, is not an option.

While questions of how soon and how fast remain unanswered, the threat of massive elimination of truck, and also bus and taxi drivers, is real. The skills of their crafts are not readily adaptable to other occupations. They would add to the demographics of Trump’s purported working class “base”–“middle class” workers left behind by plant closings or living in fear of losing good jobs. In this regard, Trump is indeed just getting started.

How can the working class respond to this menace? I plan to offer some ideas in the next WIR.

In Brief…

* Free At Last—After 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Lamonte McIntyre was released last week after the Wyandotte County (Kansas City, Kansas) District Attorney stipulated he had been wrongfully convicted. This only happened because of the intervention of the Innocence Project. Unfortunately, their resources can only help a handful of the tens of thousands, mostly poor and Black like McIntyre, suffering from miscarriage of “justice.”

* Appearance Canceled—The neofascist spiel of Milo Yiannopoulos won’t be performed live at Kansas City’s historic Folly Theater after all. His Troll Academy hate-spewing tour across the U.S. and Australia has sparked vigorous protests. The Folly explained their nixing was due to security concerns for their patrons and staff.

* Who You Gonna Call?–Trump repeated the fake news on “social media” that Puerto Rican Teamsters had refused to move aid sent for victims of Hurricane Maria. In fact more than 20 Teamsters and AFL-CIO unions immediately collaborated with the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor to send drivers, nurses, and skilled workers to pitch in. “I put out the call for help, and who listened? The unions,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital.

That’s all for this week.

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Week In Review October 8

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review October 8
Oct 082017

  by Bill Onasch

Under the Weather

Friday’s September BLS Employment Situation Report recorded a shocking net loss of jobs for the first time in seven years. Just as surprising is despite 33,000 fewer workers on payrolls the unemployment rate continued to decline to a sixteen year low of 4.2 percent.

A substantial note entitled “Hurricanes Irma and Harvey” is included in the report in an attempt to partially explain this anomaly. It turns out that there is a decisive one week period in every monthly report that determines how it will be spun. Irma hit that reference point; Harvey came in between those weeks in August and September. These monthly reports never include Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands that took the brunt of still later Maria.

The Administration line is that this job loss is weather related and the unemployment rate shows the underlying economy is still growing beyond what use to be considered full employment. There is a kernel of truth in each assertion—but a larger part deception in both. I’ll return to the health of the economy—following up on some good points made in a New York Times article, Why Some Scars of the Recession May Never Vanish–another time. For now I want to deal with Team Trump’s dismissive statements about weather.

Most figures in BLS reports are “seasonally adjusted,” partly to compensate for weather. Cold snaps can shut down outdoor work on construction sites. Snow storms can stop or slow transportation. Such weather events can temporarily reduce work hours that will show up in monthly reports. This is anticipated and the work is seldom actually lost. It will be made up, perhaps at overtime pay, as weather improves.

The BLS report accurately describes Harvey, Irma, and Maria as severe weather events—a characterization now censored on most government websites. Such events don’t merely delay economic activity—they destroy workplaces, infrastructure, housing, and agriculture as well as killing people. Estimated damage from these three storms already far exceeds previous seasonal records.

As I write, Nate has become the fourth hurricane in six weeks to hit the USA. Nate already caused deadly damage throughout Central America, and prompted prudent evacuation of all oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, before it made landfalls in the U.S. as a Category 1 hurricane.

Thankfully, unlike Harvey that lingered off Houston for days inundating the area with torrential rains, Nate has zipped along at near record velocity. As it moves inland, after being downgraded to Tropical Storm, it’s expected to traverse many states as far north as New York. So the “weather” may not be over yet.

The conditions leading to more frequent and devastating severe weather events are part of our changing climate and have long been explained and predicted by climate scientists. What is new is the increasing adverse impact on the world’s biggest capitalist economy–that has fed their ferocity.

The most reactionary ruling class regime in American history chooses not only to deny the science. I’ll now shift attention to their doubling down on climate-wrecking policies.

Quietly Getting Things Done

EPA chief Scott Pruitt loves quiet so much he spent 25,000 dollars of his budget on a sound-proof room. He discourages note-taking. His agenda had to be pried out of chilly Agency hands by Washington Post use of the Freedom of Information Act.

A New York Times article about this uncovered buried treasure begins with a summary of what the writer characterize as a typical day,

For lunch on April 26, Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dined with top executives from Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest coal-burning electric utilities, at Equinox, a white-tablecloth favorite of Washington power brokers.

“That evening, it was on to BLT Prime, a steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, for a meal with the board of directors of Alliance Resource Partners, a coal-mining giant whose chief executive donated nearly $2 million to help elect President Trump.

“Before those two agenda items, Mr. Pruitt met privately with top executives and lobbyists from General Motors to talk about their request to block an Obama administration move to curb emissions that contribute to climate change.”

Unlike the GOP Congress preoccupied with failed attempts to repeal and replace what they call ObamaCare, Pruitt has shown an ability “to get things done” with minimal effort. Another New York Times piece, ironically appearing online beneath an ad for the new Chevrolet Bolt EV, was entitled 52 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump. They listed and described 25 overturned, 19 rollbacks in progress, and eight rules in limbo. Three efforts were reversed due to lawsuits by environmental groups.

Obama’s EPA chiefs also consulted with Big Business as well as maintaining relations with Pale Green groups. Similar to ruling class squabbles over health care, many of these environmental measures initiated under Obama were themselves not just woefully inadequate but downright harmful.

The “environmental President” promoted fracking and much wider use of only marginally “cleaner” natural gas in power plants. Offshore drilling permits were handed out like business cards. Urgently needed clean renewables played a minor role in his Clean Power Initiative. But Trump’s revival of coal, along with gutting nearly all environmental regulations, would–like failed TrumpCare—be even much worse.

The Democrats were able to save Obama’s signature achievement—the misnamed Affordable Care Act—by utilizing two powerful resources. First, millions who would lose health care coverage could be expected to punish Republican candidates in elections next year and 2020. But even more importantly, a powerful coalition of ruling class forces—the insurance robber barons who wrote the ACA; Big Pharma who write their own ticket for drugs; and corporate health care providers, along with the AMA who get the lion’s share of government health spending—came to the rescue, at least for now.

While there is concern, there has not yet been a comparable ruling class split over Trump’s climate/environmental agenda. Big Oil is happy to throw shrinking Big Coal under the bus to save an expanded space for them offered by Obama. They have made their peace around the world with goals of the Paris Climate Accords. Trump’s Secretary of State, former CEO of ExxonMobil, urged his boss not to renege on Obama’s Paris commitments. That advice not taken may have contributed to Secretary Tillerson privately calling the President a moron.

But to the ultra-right wing of the ruling class that now owns the Republican Party, moronic behavior in pursuit of the destruction of the deep state obstacle to maximizing profits is not a vice. To avoid a political civil war opposing camps among the uber-rich will choose their battles carefully. An intramural brawl over climate seems as unlikely in the short term as it is inevitable in the long run.

However, in this case inevitable will likely be not only too late—fossilized global capitalism will never voluntarily accept the far reaching social and economic restructuring needed to halt destructive climate change. It’s us or nobody when it comes to leading and winning the fight for sustainability.

Challenging But Not Hopeless

Out of the long-running health care battles a significant wing of the union movement has rallied around the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. While still far short of their stated goal they have done a good job in educating unionists about the various health care scams and promoting a worthwhile reform that could win truly universal and affordable access to care.

While still in a vanguard stage, the Labor Network for Sustainability has a similar mission around climate change. They are currently soliciting signatures for an Open Letter from Union Members and Our Families to American Labor Leaders. If you are an active or retired member of an American union I urge you to sign on as I have done and get on the LNS e-mail list.

A similar global organization with a number of American affiliates, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, has some wind turning their blades. Their British affiliates have been particularly active agitating for socialization of electricity—a demand that seems achievable if a Labour Party government soon comes to power as most expect. The Labour shadow prime minister Jeremy Corbyn has been on board with TUED from day one.

It’s not a time for moping or just hoping. It’s time to educate, agitate, and mobilize among the working class.

That’s all for this week.

If you’re not already signed up you can get the Week In Review free of charge in one of the following ways.

http://www.workdayminnesota.org/sites/workdayminnesota.org/themes/workdayminnesota/images/social/large/rss.png Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

Simply send your name and e-mail address to billonasch[at]kclabor.org

Follow Bill Onasch on Google +

Powered By Blogger Our companion Labor Advocate news blog posts articles of interest to working people by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Privacy Policy. We don’t share any information about our readers with anyone else—period.

The original content we provide is copyrighted and may not be reproduced by commercial media without our consent. However, labor movement and other nonprofit media may reproduce with attribution.