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Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation
By Michael Belzer
Oxford University Press (2000)
Reviewed by David HC Correll

Sweatshops on Wheels Cover

Michael Belzer wants you to know two things about American trucking: (1) it hasn’t always been this way; and (2) it doesn’t have to be this way.  In his book, Sweatshops on Wheels – which reads to me as the collected papers of his doctoral research presented for a general audience – Belzer is unabashedly critical of the effect that deregulation in the 1980s had on American long-haul truck drivers.  Anecdotally and empirically, Belzer should know.  Before earning his PhD in 1993, he made his living for 10 years as a truck driver.

At the time that I found it, Sweatshops on Wheels was almost 20 years old, and yet, especially welcome to me personally.  Being a researcher who is currently working on American trucking, I look in from the outside, intermittently prodding industry people for insights and answers. Online and in-person, industry people have been great to me. Incredibly patient and welcoming.   But, amidst the gracious hospitality, I’ve also sensed palpable frustration with the plight of the modern American truck driver — there are too few(!), they are too heavily regulated(!), they are too marginalized(!).  Before Belzer’s book, I had yet to find an explanation that meets the diametrically opposed goals of both starting at the beginning, and summarizing the author’s perspective succinctly.  Belzer offers such an explanation: deregulation.

Reading Sweatshop on Wheels is like eavesdropping on truck stop talk, 1890 to 1990.  Belzer starts in the Victorian era deliberately. His thesis and his story arc are elliptical: sweatshops existed in 19th century England because society then failed to properly regulate the conditions of hourly, non-supervisory work — then, mostly in Dickensian sweatshop factories.   With America’s passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980,  the United States stopped properly regulating the conditions of truck driving, and thereby re-created  our own sweatshop problem – only this time, on the road.  Sweatshops, as defined by Belzer are workplaces where people work for (1) low pay, (2) for long hours, and (3) in unsafe and unsanitary conditions just to make a living wage.  Hence the book’s title, Sweatshops on Wheels.

Overtime and the American Driver

Modern American drivers are, however, regulated.  Many industry people with whom I communicate tell me too much so.  And, when the market cycle favors carriers, truck drivers can sometimes earn north of the median American wage.  Putting aside the truism that everyone thinks that they should be paid more, Belzer identifies a bellwether moment that, to my mind, explains a large part of the frustration that I sense among and around American drivers and their regulators.  Most over-the-road drivers are not salaried, and yet they are also not afforded overtime pay as is required for similarly non-salaried employees in  other industries.  According to the FMCSA  ‘Hours of Service” (HOS) rules, freight-carrying American drivers can drive for 11 hours per day, work for 14, and can work no more than 70 hours in one week before taking a 36-hour break.  Interestingly though, Belzer points out that these regulations were originally conceived to protect the public from over-tired truck drivers —  not truck drivers from excessive workloads. 

This interesting take on the issue rings as true to me now as it must have when Belzer wrote his manuscripts.  Belzer notes that in 1981, immediately following passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, Washington’s Minimum Wage Study Commission (MWSC) decided that the Fair Labor Standards Act (which requires overtime pay after 40 hours of work in one week for non-supervisory employees) curiously, did not apply to truck drivers.  The MWSC denied overtime pay to truckers for 2 reasons: (1) at that time they were considered already well-protected from wage exploitation by their then powerful Teamster’s union; and (2) the Department of Transportation already regulated truck drivers’ working hours through Hours of Service (HOS) legislation.  But union representation, while once strong in trucking, has since fallen significantly. And if HOS laws aren’t about working conditions for drivers, how are they an appropriate replacement for the protections afforded to working Americans by  the Fair Labor Standards Act?  I know I’m almost 40 years late to the party here, but when presented this way, I got  a small sense of the distaste for regulators that many truckers must have lived with for their entire careers.

The ‘Risk Shift Index’ and Union Representation

Belzer also breaks down common truck driver compensation plans into three easily understandable categories (from best for the driver to best for the company).  He calls it the “Risk Shift Index” (p. 142).  “A driver who is paid for all of his or her time gets a ‘1’.   A driver who gets paid by the stop gets a ‘2’.  A driver who gets paid by the mile gets a ‘3’. On this scale, trucking companies with higher Risk Shift Index scores can be interpreted as making driver earning more like the old Victorian sweatshop’s ‘piece-meal’ payment system.  Notably, in purely piece-meal work, an employee gets paid for each piece that  they complete (or mile they drive), and as a result, immediately suffer the consequences of any risks beyond their control. Belzer finds that national carriers show higher Risk Shift Index scores than regional ones, suggesting that different cultures in different American regions may treat their drivers better. Union representation also played a role.  Unionized carriers have lower Risk Shift Index scores. Interestingly, the gap between union and non-union index scores in Less-than-truckload (LTL) is large and significant, but the same gap in Truckload (TL)  is smaller — evidence that unions, then and now, were more powerful in the LTL world than in TL.  

In the end, Belzer directs his readers to bigger concerns about American workers in general. In this book, it seems at times that the whole notion of private and for-profit enterprise are under attack. He points out that as a society we enjoy plenty of things that the free market alone cannot provide for us (he notes teaching hospitals, trade apprenticeships and social safety nets – I would have just said, drinking water).   Similarly then, we lack a healthy supply of available truck drivers because an un-regulated trucking market cannot provide and protect them.  Since reading Sweatshops, these insights have stayed with me as keystones to understanding the tones of driver discontent that I observe in the data, and in-person.  

Smokey and the Smartphone

What is different now from the time of Belzer’s writing? Technology.  At the time of Belzer’s writing, there were no smart phones; no Electronic Logging Devices; no visibility solutions offering real-time geographic position, cargo temperature, or light exposure spoiling information.  Of course, these systems are designed for the shipper, the consignee, and the broker – the supervisory employees, not the drivers.  But, that doesn’t mean that the these and other new data sets cannot also be used to the advantage of the trucker. Projects like TrueLoadTime, TruckerTools, Dock411, and others, are gathering some of this same data to rate and compare shippers – like rating your Uber driver, but in reverse – and anecdotal information suggests that some drivers are refusing loads from low-scoring shippers.   Future projects from the MIT FreightLab Driver Initiative will include quantitative investigations into the potential correlation between shipper/consignee ratings from these applications and tender acceptance/rejection rates.   In essence, we are entering a world where drivers are arming themselves, digitally, to stand up for themselves.  I can’t help but think that – somewhere — Jimmy Hoffa is checking his smartphone, and smiling.  

But in so many other ways, the long march towards commoditization of the American Driver’s time that Belzer describes continues apace.  Average turnover at America’s trucking companies is over 100%.  The world’s first freight futures contract traded on 29 March 2019, essentially moving the market one step closer managing truck drivers like corn grain and crude oil – basic and interchangeable components of modern production systems.  Going one step further, prototype driverless trucks are already on the roads, essentially replacing the American driver with robots — no more knights of the road, no more Kris Kristoffersons in Convoy, or Burt Reynolds in Smokey & the Bandit… Someday maybe, only Siri behind the steering wheel.   Hopefully, she too will be programmed to honk the air horn for giddy passing children.

The Working Classes and The End of History

Geopolitically, Sweatshops on Wheels strikes a note too.  Belzer’s book takes minor (but very fun!) diversions into the intellectual legacy of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. (So much so that “Trotyskyite” is in the glossary!).  It is worth nothing here that Belzer was researching during the 1980s and writing in the 1990s.  In effect then, his writing traces the story arc of America’s cold war with Russia and the Soviet Socialist experiment.  Belzer researched and wrote while his country embraced its go-go-Gordon-Gecko 1980s, and the consumerist 1990s.  While his contemporaries heralded “The End of History” globally,  Belzer instead stops to identify interesting traces of the Russian socialist intellectual legacy once alive in American trucking. This unexpected diversion packs a powerful a point — one that was in some ways especially out of sync with his own time and place 20 to 30 years ago — simply, that the working conditions of the working classes ought to matter to us more than they do.  In today’s Amazon-effect era, where consumers instinctively expect free and fast delivery, with no notion of the human cost that this service entails, I believe that this primary assertion of Belzer’s book maybe even truer now than when it was first published. I also think that, culturally, we are perhaps now in a better position to really hear him too.

In the book’s conclusion, I read Belzer as transitioning into his posture as the professor he became after driving a truck. Just as a professor would with a precocious undergraduate, Dr. Belzer leads his  reader to a facetious fork in the road:  we can continue as-is and expect freight transportation to be cheap and fast forever, so long as we are OK with “sweating” our American truck drivers.  Or, we can accept that a large-scale and  painful change may be necessary.  Obviously, Belzer prefers the latter, and suggests 3 changes: (1) Extend the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover truckers;  (2)  Revise the Hours of Service Rules to consider driver health and profitability, as well as public safety; and (3 ) Strengthen the  industry through stronger unions and collective bargaining.  To my knowledge, 20 years on, only one  is currently under active development.