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.
* 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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