What Do Truckers Have to Do With Country Music, Food Prices, and Politics?
Just recently, for example, a study by researchers at Rutgers University, reported in this Reuters article, found that deregulated trucking has pushed up state and federal spending on healthcare in export-driven port states like New Jersey.
In his book Trucking Country, Shane Hamilton, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, chronicles the history and influence of trucking in the U.S. He has agreed to answer our questions about trucking’s past and how it still does — or doesn’t — affect U.S. society.
You devote a significant part of the book to country music and movies about the trucker lifestyle. Why were these so important to the history of the trucking industry?
Particularly in the 1970’s, the independent trucker was celebrated by country musicians and Hollywood filmmakers as “the last American cowboy.” Whether such cultural gems as Convoy actually affected truckers’ mindsets is debatable; it seems more likely that the music and the movies reflected (albeit through the lenses of Hollywood and Nashville) the sense of fierce independence, counter-cultural defiance, and unapologetic masculinity that defined trucker culture at the time.
Much like the work of actual cowboys, a day’s work for a trucker was mainly filled with boredom rather than romance or adventure. Even so, truckers very much valued (and continue to value) not being confined within the four walls of a factory or an office. And especially for the tens of thousands of men who were independent owner-operators in the 1970’s — small-business men, rather than employees — trucking seemed a particularly attractive path to the American dream of pull-yourself-up-by-the-cowboy-bootstraps economic manhood. This economic culture of self-made manhood was what Nashville’s country musicians were celebrating when they penned trucking songs — even though, for the sake of entertainment value, most of the songs tended to deal with rather kitschy aspects of trucking life, such as jukeboxes, pinball machines, truckstop waitresses, and CB radios.
How have truckers’ attitudes toward their jobs affected food prices?
The key connection between trucker culture and food costs in the mid-20th century was the deep-seated resistance of many independent truckers to labor unions. Most truckers who hauled farm products, rather than general freight, were not members of the Teamsters’ union — even though the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was the nation’s single largest and most powerful union from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. This was in part a product of truckers’ sense of independence — as Rubber Duck played by Kris Kristofferson in the 1978 movie Convoy declares, “The Teamsters ain’t my damn union!” But this ferocious anti-union stance was also encouraged by federal policies that exempted farm and food truckers from the regulatory oversight of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Unlike the regulated, consolidated general freight sector, farm and food trucking was largely carried out by unregulated small firms. These small companies, often owned and operated by a single individual, were extremely difficult for the Teamsters to organize. In the decades from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, agribusiness firms relied on these non-union truckers to dramatically transform the way food moved from farm to fork, lowering the prices of key foods such as beef, milk, and packaged produce for supermarket shoppers. In the case of milk, for instance, milk processors relied on non-union truckers to deliver cheap milk in paper cartons and plastic jugs directly to supermarket loading docks beginning in the 1950’s, rather than deliver milk in glass bottles to consumers’ doorsteps via Teamster milkmen as had been done since the late 19th century.
So independent truckers’ willingness to perform sweated labor without union representation (and the high wages and pension benefits that went along with membership) played a large part, I think, in the decline of food costs as a portion of the average American family’s budget in the second half of the 20th century.
What does the trucking industry look like today? Do truckers still affect how much we pay for food, for example?
A transformative shift in trucking occurred in the wake of the 1980 Motor Carrier Act, which deregulated the entire trucking industry. From 1935 to 1980, most truck drivers (with the significant exception of nonregulated farm and food haulers) were members of the Teamsters, and worked as “company drivers” hauling freight for large regulated common carriers such as Consolidated Freightways, Roadway Express, and Pacific Intermountain Express. After deregulation, nonunionized trucking flourished as the Interstate Commerce Commission’s barriers to entry were torn down. Three years after the 1980 Motor Carrier Act became law, the number of nonunion motor carriers tripled. The Teamsters hemorrhaged members, so that by 1985 only 160,000 long-haul truckers belonged to the union — a 43 percent decline since 1976. With competition driving down, freight rates and wage-cutting became a business imperative for both union and nonunion firms.
Long story short, trucking is now characterized by cut-throat competition and high degrees of risk. Especially for the approximately 400,000 independent owner-operator truckers who haul much of the nation’s freight today, any increase in costs — particularly fuel prices — is generally borne by the truckers themselves, rather than by consumers. When fuel prices recently spiked in 2007/2008, food costs also rose rapidly — but most of that increase in food costs was due to higher farm costs for petroleum-dependent inputs such as fertilizers, rather than transportation costs. Many independent truckers were driven into bankruptcy by spiraling diesel prices; quite a few promoted the idea of reviving 1970’s-style interstate shutdowns to dramatize their plight.
It’s not that truckers aren’t affecting food prices at all — clearly the modern food system is utterly dependent on highway transportation powered by fossil fuel, and the costs of transporting food along that chain are borne by food consumers and taxpayers in the long run. Short-term food-price swings, however, are disproportionately absorbed not by end consumers but by those further “up” the food distribution chain — namely, farmers, wholesalers, and transporters.
What does the future of trucking look like?
As a historian, I don’t predict the future. However, the evidence seems overwhelming that petroleum prices are soon going to be climbing rapidly upward. Many owner-operator truckers will likely find themselves in a cost/price squeeze, unable to cover the increased expense of keeping their rigs fueled while faced with shippers’ demands for the lowest possible freight rates. In such a situation, bankruptcies would be rampant in the trucking industry. In the long run, it seems likely that rising fuel costs will lead shippers to turn increasingly to railroads for cross-country transportation, using trucks only for relatively short hauls (as was the case from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, before long-haul trucking really took off). Most of the nation’s distribution infrastructure is entirely reliant on highway transportation; however, the American Trucking Association estimates that 80 percent of U.S. communities receive their goods solely by truck.
Considering how much the industry has changed, do today’s truckers still love country music like they used to?
Country music is still a popular genre for many truckers, but today’s generation of truckers is further removed from the rural roots of many mid-20th-century drivers. Today’s truckers are much more likely to come from urban or suburban backgrounds. Furthermore, today’s truckers are far more racially diverse than they were in the mid-20th century, when the occupation was overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
And country music, especially since the 1990’s success of artists such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, has become a form of blue-collar pop rock, with only tenuous connections to its original roots in southern white rural culture. My sense is that young truckers today, being a more diverse audience than they were in the past, also have more diverse musical tastes. Many also prefer to listen to talk radio. The SIRIUS radio network, for instance, hosts several popular trucker-oriented shows on its Road Dog Network. The old all-night AM radio shows that targeted truckers with country songs and Peterbilt advertisements in the 1960’s and 1970’s are largely a thing of the past. Tune in to this station for some modern trucker radio.