Steve Viscelli thinks he knows what’s ailing the American trucking industry. A sociologist, and for a brief time a trucker himself, Viscelli’s research digs into how working conditions in the trucking industry have degraded since what most would consider trucking’s heyday in the 1970s. The work is the subject of his new book The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, and a recent article on the same subject over at The Atlantic.
Viscelli’s contention will probably sound familiar to those who’ve been in the industry long enough to have had some experience on both sides. He says that deregulation in the late 1970s led to a massive degradation in both the quality of work and the working conditions truckers faced.
“Under regulation, competition was limited and common rates were set, and all but agricultural products required federal authority to haul,” Viscelli writes in The Atlantic piece. “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.”
Viscelli said those changes led to high levels of turnover and low pay, which have characterized the industry for decades, and that “the solution has been to settle on a system that shifts risks and costs to more-experienced workers and delays their exit to better paying segments of the industry, or from the industry altogether.”
But deregulation and the decline of unions isn’t the only thing keeping the wages and the working conditions of many of today’s truckers down. Viscelli argues that the rise of independent contractor status, coupled with predatory lease-purchase agreements that lock new drivers into untenable working situations, is responsible. He shares the story of one driver – “Claudio” – who is locked into a lease-purchase with an unnamed company, and who received a paycheck of $41.58 for a week’s work.
“Contracting, then, is presented to drivers with the promise of fantastic salaries and greater control, but it often falls short. And working as a driver is harder than those outside the industry likely appreciate,” he writes.
Viscelli’s solution is for the laws governing independent contractor status to be simplified, so that workers can understand them.
The predatory lease-purchase agreement is a story Land Line has written about before. More than once. But the impact of deregulation, generally seen as win for consumers and large manufacturers, has been a huge loss for workers in the trucking industry, Viscelli argues.