February 05, 2018

The Big Rig and the Sociology of Work

Colby (1)By Colby King

I teach a Sociology of Work course at Bridgewater State University that meets in the evening each fall. At BSU, about half of our students come from working class backgrounds and/or are among the first generation in their family to go to college. One of the reasons I have really enjoyed teaching evening sections of this class is that many of the students typically work off campus and the class is often infused with their work experiences. These students also express a practical interest in the dynamics of labor markets, the shape of organizations, and the quality of jobs in addition to their interest in sociological concepts related to work.

This fall, I added Steve Viscelli’s book The Big Rig to the material we used in this class. I was motivated in part because it is a large and dynamic industry that illustrates many of the concepts and concerns we cover in this class. About 3 million people work as truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. NPR’s Planet Money has created this interactive map showing how truck driver has been the most common job in many states since at least the 1970s. The American Trucking Associations found that in 2014 more than 7 million people were employed in jobs related to the trucking industry, even after excluding those who were self-employed. They also report that registered trucks drove 279.1 billion miles in 2014.

I was also interested to add this book to the class because my Grandpa Roy (who passed away in 2016) worked as a truck driver, from when he dropped out of school as a teenager to when he retired. He worked for his dad’s small trucking company in Everett, Pennsylvania, for a few years and then took a job with Interstate Motor Freight, where he worked for 29.5 years.

Working for Interstate entailed moving when the company required it, which uprooted the family and meant my mom and uncle graduated from two different high schools (Knoch and Mercer, respectively) just four years apart. Interstate closed in 1984, just before he reached 30 years on the job, and he spent the last few years of his career driving for several different companies and for himself, hauling all sorts of goods, from golf carts to gravel. At one point he bought his own truck and drove independently, but the freedom he gained from owning his own truck did not pay the bills, and he sold his truck after less than a year driving independently. He was working for northAmerican when he retired. Over the years he was a member of Teamsters Local 249 Pittsburgh, 453 Bedford and 261 New Castle.

Grandfather
Photo courtesy of the author

From the stories he shared, it was clear that he enjoyed the work. He would describe adventures driving in bad weather and explain his favorite rest stops. He mostly avoided long-haul trucking, but he had trucking stories to share with me about driving down south, or up to Boston, when I moved for school and then for work. And every time I was about to hit the road, he’d tell me how he thought I should get there, and where I should stop. He’d pull out an atlas and point to the location of a truck stop in Wytheville, Virginia, near the intersection of I-77 and I-81. Or, he’d tell me how it might take a little longer to get from I-80 to I-84 on Route 209 than it does on I-81, but the views of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along Route 209 were worth the extra time.

While I did not expect many of my students would have direct experience with the trucking industry, I did anticipate that the changes in the quality of work in the industry that Viscelli illustrates would illuminate our discussions of the polarization of work and the rise of precarious employment. I also had a hunch (which turned out to be accurate) that students would be very interested in considering how the looming possibility of automated trucks would impact these workers.

In reviewing The Big Rig, Jill Ann Harrison recognizes that “Truckers are now earning far less while working more hours” (938). Rebecca L. Upton reports that the book explains “how industry deregulation and collective action on the part of trucking employers have harmed drivers, degrading the quality of work performed” and limiting their access to the American Dream (723).

I put the students in small groups and assigned them to write critical reviews of the book that focuses on some aspect of the sociology of work in the trucking industry. The groups focused on gender, class identity, deregulation, independent contracting, and other topics that they were motivated to explore. I use Arne Kalleberg’s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs as a primary text for this course, and students found examples in The Big Rig that further illustrated Kalleberg’s analysis of the deepening split between high quality and low quality jobs, and his explanation of how economic restructuring and the fading of institutional protections, have changed work opportunities, engaging and informative.

It turned out, though, that two students had personal connections to the industry. One student shared that he had worked for FedEx for four years. He had worked as a shuttle driver and a handler, unloading freight from big rigs and sort them to box trucks, airplane containers, and other big rigs, and also driving a box truck of freight to the airport to be put on planes. Another student had a family member who had worked for UPS.

In their reviews, several groups highlighted Viscelli’s argument that “hauling general freight…used to be one of the best blue-collar jobs in the US – until the 1970s” (p. 9). Students incorporated related research and, drawing on Kling’s 1988 research, explained how deregulation of the industry, combined with a drop in rates of union membership among drivers, and the rise of independent contracting with individual owner-operators decreased the quality of trucking jobs.

Grandfather 3
Photo courtesy of the author

One group examined gender issues in the trucking industry. They found that women comprise less than 6% of workers in this industry, and those women who do work in the trucking industry are more likely to work in an office, rather than driving themselves. This group also found an organization, Women in Trucking. This non-profit organization works to “encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry, promote their accomplishments and minimize obstacles faced by woman working in the trucking industry.”

Today, truck drivers are much more likely to be struggling to achieve financial stability, and rarely achieving any semblance of the American middle class dream. As Viscelli illustrates, this change is not because truckers doing their work less well, but because of structural changes in the industry. Deregulation and the rise of independent contracting have made trucking work more unstable, and reduced benefits and earnings. “Truckers have serious grievances,” he writes, elaborating, “At the top of the list are low wages, huge amounts of unpaid work, and lots of time spent away from home” (194).

Through working with The Big Rig, I came to see how my Grandpa’s career and his stories exemplify changes in the trucking industry. When he started driving, he was in the family business. Without a high school degree, he was able to provide a financially stable lifestyle for his family. Working for larger companies meant good income, though it necessitated moving around the state. But over time, the finances became more difficult, the promise of independent driving did not work out well, and he retired a little less comfortably than he might have hoped.

When Viscelli asked individual drivers what they felt they should do to improve their circumstances, many suggested that they should strike. He explained, however, that employee turnover and independent contracting fracture the industry’s labor force and forestall potential organizing efforts.

Viscelli explains that:

The story of how the trucking industry has used contracting to create cheaper, harder-working drivers who shoulder the burden of risk that used to belong to the carriers is far from unique. Employment relations are being marketized for millions of low-skilled workers in dozens of occupations (206).

Students in this class recognized that these processes of marketization of labor relations were also occurring in industries they were working in. Retail workers, for example, expressed parallel frustrations about a decrease in job quality, including, for example, employer demands for unpredictable on-call shifts.

Reading The Big Rig caused students in this class to ask difficult questions about the structure of work in the various industries they are hoping to enter after graduation. How does job quality vary in their target industry? What risks are workers expected to take on? Are there opportunities for solidarity and organizing among workers in that field? What inequities permeate that industry along race, gender, age, and other lines? What will automation and technological advances mean for the future of work in these industries?

While trucking was not a likely industry for most of these students, reading The Big Rig helped these students develop their sociological imaginations, encouraging them to ask and explore these questions as they consider how social structures will shape their work opportunities.

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