What Do Truckers Have to Do With Country Music, Food Prices, and Politics?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONCarl Fleischauer Jess and Joe Jaca with their Jaca truck in 1981.

Since the first trucks began carrying freight in the early 1900’s, the U.S. trucking industry has had an influence on politics, food prices, and even music.

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.

Question

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?

Answer

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.

Question

How have truckers’ attitudes toward their jobs affected food prices?

Answer

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.

Question

What does the trucking industry look like today? Do truckers still affect how much we pay for food, for example?

Answer

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.

Question

What does the future of trucking look like?

Answer

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.

Question

Considering how much the industry has changed, do today’s truckers still love country music like they used to?

Answer

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.


Mike B

There is a good book on the current state of the trucking industry called "Sweatshop on Wheels". I highly recommend it.

My problem with truckers is that in our current non-union world most drivers are paid by the load, which is an overpowering incentive for unsafe practices like speeding and exceeding the hours of service laws. I feel that truck regulations are severely under enforced (when was the last time you saw a Weight Station that was actually open or a cop pull over a truck) and the audit mechanisms like log books are easily falsified.

The faster we can get our long haul truck traffic onto railroads the better off we will all be. Issues with energy efficiency and use of diesel fuel aside, trucks exact a disproportionate toll on our national infrastructure. A truck inflicts between 100 and 1000 time greater units of pavement damage than a typical passenger vehicle does. I seriously doubt that is being made up in fuel taxes or fees.

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Jeff

During college (1989), I briefly worked for a trucking company as an accountant.

It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Much less "Convoy" and more like "the most thankless job on the planet"

Johnny E

Is there still a push to make trucks bigger and bigger (theoretically more profitable for the owners but more dangerous for the driving public and more damaging to the highways and bridges)?

Are shippers still trying to allow Mexican truck drivers access to all US highways (without reciprocal rights for US truckers in Mexico) to drive down wages?

The only reason truckers are associated with country music is because the only stations you can get on a long road trip are C&W music and Bible-thumpers.

Karen

Fascinating topic!! More, please!

William

There is a push for "longer combination vehicles" and increased width of trucks. It's highly debatable whether moving more freight onto LCV's is more or less dangerous for other motorists. LCV's are less crash prone at present than "normal" truck traffic, but LCV's are primarily driven in big western states by more experienced/safe drivers, so it's unclear how much of the increased safety is driver/situational and how much is vehicle based. They do reduce the overall number of trucks on the road, and reduce truck/car interaction--which is the number one cause of truck accidents.

Greg

1 out of about every 40 vehicles on the road is a commercial big rig.

According to the Dept of Transportation 1.5M trucks on the road in 1999. (couldn't find any more recent stats...but fair for argument) If we moved half of these to Inter-Modal or Rail...that is 750,000 unemployed middle class Americans or an additional 3.5% of our population out of work. Not to mention the Owners, and mechanics...and admin folks that support one of the largest business sectors in out Nation.

Stats say that average salary for a trucker is between 40-60K year...and higher for owner operators. That's a lot of missing cash from our ecomony. A lot of foreclosed homes. A lot less taxes for Obama to offset half of our deficit by the end of his first term.

Just something to think about....

The trucking industry is the backbone of America.

Jorge I. Gomez

The saying that as General Motors goes, so goes the nation has some similarity with trucking and prostitution, and the report failed to mention. If too many truckers go belly up, so will many prostitutes.

travis ormsby

@ #6, Greg

If moving freight to rail is more efficient than transportation by truck (not saying that it is, just assuming so for sake of argument), then that is exactly what should be done, the sake of individual truckers notwithstanding

It's the same argument that favors decreased trade barriers. Sure, cheap Chinese goods put NC textile workers out of a job, but the net benefit to the US as a whole more than offsets those job losses.

Trucking isn't the backbone of America, effficient transportation is. If trucking isn't the most efficient way of moving freight, then we are all better off without it.

We can (and should) use the savings to cushion the blow to truckers, but I'm not sure why I should pay more for delivered goods just so a trucker can live a middle-class lifestyle.

Ken

"

The saying that as General Motors goes, so goes the nation has some similarity with trucking and prostitution, and the report failed to mention. If too many truckers go belly up, so will many prostitutes.
- Jorge I. Gomez "

Don't they already? Just saying.

Jacques René Giguere

With high fixed costs and low marginal costs, truckers live in a classic empty Samuelson core squeeze.
Unless there is full employment, they must neglect any cost not immediately recoverable: off go maintenance, new tires, whatever. That why it was regulated in the first place before idelogues forgot good economics in the late 70's. Same thing for the airlines.

Derek

Despite the initial pro-union comment , I think unions are unsustainable because they create an environment that pits employees against employers. In the end, it is self-destructing.

Trains may help move things across country (planes too), but trucks are more flexible.

Chris S

@6 Greg,

A couple of points. Any transition from long-haul trucking to rail will not take place overnight. Increase of rail will also mean more jobs. And I don't think your math can be right. I don't know what the civilian labor force was in 1999, but it was roughly 154 million in 2008. 750K is 3.5% of only 21.5 million. The loss of an additional 750K jobs would be bad, but not economy-shattering, especially not spread over several years.
There are also safety and environmental advantages to rail, as others have pointed out. I don't want to sound callous about truckers' livelihoods, but it won't be the first industry to suffer obsolescence.

James Matthews

Success in business is largely about leverage. For truckers that means controlling the freight. The trouble is that since 1980, they've lost whatever leverage they had over shippers.

When the industry was regulated, entry into trucking 'lanes' was tightly controlled resulting in limited choices and no pricing leverage for shippers. Today it's the opposite. Anyone with a truck (bought, leased, whatever) can become a carrier. This of course leads to low ball rates and lots and lots of turnover in the industry (there are hundreds if not thousands of trucking companies going out of business even in strong years). Low rates mean lousy pay for drivers and some really awful business practices; my 'favorite' being drivers who get suckered into buying their tractor from the company that they drive for only to find themselves getting forced into default by their very own company - who then resell the repossessed tractor!

With this kind of structure and the fact that, unlike the railroads, there really are no good economies of scale in trucking, the situation is not going to change in the future for either carriers or drivers until the industry can somehow develop stronger barriers to entry. This can be through unionization, regulation of rates or lanes, higher safety standards or even through tighter security requirements.

The other issue is of course that strengthening trucking means shippers will be forced to pay higher rates. Big business and the whole structure of supply chains in this country are highly dependent on low trucking rates. Walmart, for one, would look far different in a world of high trucking rates - it's not a coincidence that they started growing only after trucking deregulation. But again, it comes back to leverage - the shippers have it now, they're bigger as a whole and they don't plan on giving it up.

Jim in Brooklyn

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rw

Lay off with the trucker/hooker thing, will ya!
I drove a truck for years....and never once did I have sex with a prostitute (or 'lot lizard' as we referred to them).

I did, however, do a fair amount of speeding (in all senses of the word!).

hanmeng

The study by "researchers at Rutgers University" reported in the Reuters article is apparently by David Bensman, whose other research shows a lot of hostility to what he calls "Neo-Liberalism". That doesn't mean he's wrong, but I'd take his research with a grain of salt.

Sage

I find it really interesting how many people have an opinion about something they really know nothing about. James Matthews on the other hand made an intelligent and true statement. Too many people have watched too much t.v. and consider it fact when it is far from it. Not only that, those movies are over 30 years old. And despite what some people think, the industry has changed drastically in the last 30 years. Most truckers these days are company drivers. This means they are paid by the miles they drive. At a rate of anywhere from 21-31 cents per mile. To some that may sound like a lot of money, But factor in that they do not make any money if they are not actually moving, that they are not actually paid all of the miles they drive, that most of the major companies are training companies and taking on students even when, in this economy they have more drivers sitting then moving, and that the new drivers, with no experience get paid less, and therefore get most of the loads, a long term driver is barely making enough money to live on let alone help support his family. Add to this that the truckstops have raised their prices to make up losses in this economy while lowering their quality and you are looking at most truckers now being supported by their wives or husbands who are not truckers. Any trucker who got into driving for the money has been sadly disillusioned by reality now. There is no money in it for drivers. The money goes to the companies who, when needing to cut costs in this economy, took away any extras the drivers might have, disallowed any idling even in -19 degree weather, and all the while increasing the dispatchers (who rarely do their jobs right), the load planners, and their own bonus'. This not only hurts the drivers financially but makes it where these others incentive to do their jobs right and do right by all of the drivers, turn to only those who save the company money. Meaning new drivers with little experience. This in turn increasing the dangers to other drivers on the road. Despite what so many seem to believe, most drivers are in trucking because they love it. The great drivers, they have been around a long time. They are usually great drivers. Careful drivers. Their biggest problem is the same for all drivers on the road. Those people who jump lanes, cut off other drivers, do not use turn signals, do not use their lights properly. On top of that they must worry about those who think it is fun to play chicken with them and those who just seem not to be able to see that a truck that big, even empty, can not stop on a dime and get out of their way when they drive like they own the road. Until you are out there, living that life for a while, spending time with these drivers, talking to them, getting to know them and the way they live, you have no idea what it is really like. Most do not 'fix' their logs. Most do not use 'lot lizards' or cheat on their spouses, most have never been in an accident or have multiple tickets. Most have families to support, lives they do not get to live, children they rarely see and no money to show for it all. Before you decide that their jobs are obsolete, perhaps you should actually find out something more about them and what they actually do and what they sacrifice to do it. Let me tell you, if push comes to shove, it would only take most of the drivers to shut down their trucks for a few days, or refuse to deliver to one of the major cities, such as NY or La, and they could cripple our economy in untold ways. And unlike most industries, everyone has something in their home that is shipped in on trucks. They are what keeps the products going. And those who want to put them on rails really should check into how the rail system works now. It will cost more, there will be more damaged or spoiled products and that will all come out of our pockets. You try shipping fruits and vegatables or hazardous materials on a train. And then try and get someone in to pick up that load and deliver it. I would like to see how long it will take you to want the truckers back. lol.

A Trucker's Wife

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RickG

Shane Hamilton evidently has no knowledge of the Fuel Surcharge which is added to base shipping rates to compensate for increases in fuel costs . Contrary to what Hamilton states the FSC does result in food costs being affected by fuel costs and the rising costs aren't absorbed by O/O's . In fact the calculation of the FSC usually uses a fuel consumption of 6 mpg . If an O/O can manage to average 6.5 to 7 mpg higher fuel prices will yield a higher profit .
As for shipping by rail , unless you can have railyards within a 150 mile raidius of each other the loads will still have to be trucked hundreds of miles . Anyone familiar with intermodal shipping knows intermodal containers , chassis , and trailers are poorly maintained safety hazards .
A good alternative shipping method gaining attention is by ship along the coasts and barges on inland waterways . This is much more efficient than rail .
Allowing Mexican trucks in is part of the NAFTA agreement . The only way to stop Mexican truckers is to rewrite NAFTA . One final thing . As more and more people lose jobs in other careers they turn to trucking and spend thousands of dollars on schooling to get a CDL . That is a very foolish move ! Freight is down . All fleets have downsized . Tens of thousands of experienced drivers are out of work . There is one reason carriers send recruiters to schools . It's because drivers keep quitting ! I've read many first hand experiences where a graduate is hired , goes to orientation , then is sent home to wait weeks without pay for an available truck . Then he gets a call to go get an abandoned truck . Another new driver found out he can't get enough miles to survive . After being away from home for 4 or 5 weeks taking home less than $300 a week he abandons the truck . His replacement will do no better .
There is no opportunity in the trucking industry for people with no experience .

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science minded

now this topic is up my alley- may dad was in the trucking business for years- ran a trucking company for a friend- I wrote ads and series of them for my husband --who at the time had a number of clients in the shipping and trucking industry .

one i recall was for a new boat- carrying trucks- And I recall my advisor Joe Bensman- talking so much about the real importance of transportation- roads/costs-- my guess is- Professor Bensman got his idea from Max Weber- who traced reasons for decline of W. civilization - to transport matters-

Frankly- this is off the top of my head- correct me on this--if I am mistaken-- no time

Rick Devole

First off Thank you Sage! I wish you and your Husband the best of life. Well said!!!
Second I am an OTR ( over the road) truck driver. pull flat bed trailers. For those of you who don't know that's the one's you see with tarps, Lumber, steel, and mostly raw manufacturing materials. I'm the guy you see at the Travel Center who you think is disgusting, because I just finished loading or unloading, and am dirtier than a six year old who is allowed to play out in the dirt and mud in the front yard. Yep and I will smell bad too. But I don't really care if you like me 'cuz this is the life I chose. And I am Proud of what I do for a living and Like what I do!! How many of you can say the same?
Third You all need to get a life and not worry about things you know nothing about. You are simply misinformed, by Hollywood and think that is the life of a truck driver. And this is what the new young and not so young guys and gals think when they come into this industry.Most of us a simple well meaning and hard working people who happen to drive a truck. I know all you can remember is the last truck you saw who you thought was tailgating you on the freeway, Yes there are those morons who do not fully understand what it is they re really doing... I ask them this If that was your family would you do that to them? Well, that is some body's family, so chill out and back off. I ask you, If that was your husband or wife driving that truck would you cut him or her off in traffic just to get hone a few seconds earlier?
I like to listen to the Sirius/XM radio. They have good news and a station just for truckers that we can talk about the issues that affect us. OH and yes we do talk about you the four wheelers a lot!!! Why do we talk about you/ You are one of our biggest concerns. Believe it or not we care about your safety, and the lives of your loved one's. We see way to much death and destruction every day out o the road. Just today I have driven from Laredo, TX to Colbert, OK. That's I-35 to US 75 in to OK . San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. Two minor accidents in San Antonio, One in Austin, and Three in Dallas. This is Saturday, Why is every one in such a hurry?
I guess I might have gotten off topic here, but hey some of the post here were viewed as an anti- trucker response. Some think it would be good to get rid of the trucks, and use rail. The problem is It cost more to build and maintain a rail system. Most places, towns and cities don't want trucks. We have fewer paces to park to get and take our Federally regulated rest period. You want your food and clothes but not the trucks, as I see it some thing is going to have to give. You can not have your cake and eat it to. You want your roads and bridges repaired and maintained, So do I! I am tired of paying more taxes and then you think it is fair to tax us again? Turn this road into a toll road, Oh that has worked out so well.A toll is a Tax! The Highway Trust fund has been raided for years just like the Social Security system was and both are in dire straights today. Congress is to blame for this, but so are we all for not standing up and telling them, Wait, Hold on what are You thinking!!! ..
Finally I wish you all a safe and pleasant journey to all your destinations.

Some One's Trucker

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Nylund

I used to work in the magazine business (which relies on trucking to get magazines to the stands), and as a part of "getting to know the company better" we spent time in different departments. I spent a day with the guys who dealt with the transportation. There is a problem in the magazine industry in that newsstands can outsell their competitor if they get the latest issue of a magazine before the other person does, so there ends up being a black market for "early" copies of the magazines. This cannibalizes sales for the magazine makers since no one wants to buy the "old" issues anymore. As a result, the company keeps new issues locked up at a warehouse at the destination city until the sale date.

Long story short, there was a huge problem with magazines somehow making their way to the stands early and the company was working with the FBI to stop it. It was known it was a mob venture (albeit an odd one), but there was apparently a lot of evidence suggesting that either the truckers and/or the warehouse workers (I don't remember which) were in on the whole thing as a way to supplement their income.

My guess is that the vast majority of truckers are honest workers, and there are probably a ton of safeguards in place, but I would be curious to hear if any of the truckers in this thread had any thoughts or experiences regarding cargo safety, strengths and flaws in the system, how it affects their jobs, etc.

I mean, I get nervous when I lock something valuable up in my truck. What's it like to be in charge of a huge cargo that other people would love to get their hands on?

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