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.

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  1. Mike B says:

    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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  2. Jeff says:

    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”

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  3. Johnny E says:

    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.

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  4. Karen says:

    Fascinating topic!! More, please!

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  5. William says:

    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.

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  6. Greg says:

    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.

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  7. Jorge I. Gomez says:

    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.

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  8. travis ormsby says:

    @ #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.

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