by Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig
This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.
Your book is about trucking, but the trucking industry is huge. How do you study a whole industry?
I started by getting a job as a long-haul trucker. The book, like the research, begins with that experience and follows the career of a typical driver from initial recruitment, through training, working as an employee and then becoming an independent contractor. At each stage the book puts the experiences of individual drivers into the larger industry and historical context, including deregulation. But when I entered the industry I really had no idea what I was getting into. That turned out to be the perfect way to start the project because that’s how nearly all workers enter the industry and it really helped me to understand what these workers were experiencing and how employers were able to shape those experiences to their advantage. After learning to drive, I spent months crisscrossing the country delivering freight. Once I had a good sense of the job in the particular segment I was in, I started interviewing lots of drivers with more experience and in different kinds of trucking. Those interviews really opened my eyes as more experienced truckers helped me see that what I had experienced as a new driver was just one particular way of trucking. From there I did interviews with managers and owners and statistical analyses using secondary survey data. Then I gathered historical and other primary sources to understand changes in the industry over time. I looked at absolutely anything I thought might help me understand the industry and that’s what eventually allowed me to contextualize what I had experienced in my fieldwork and learned in the interviews and explain the structural conditions that produced the experiences of drivers today.
So what did you find? What can we learn from studying trucking?
Well, I went into the project knowing that trucking used to be a really good job and now it is a really tough one where people work the equivalent of two or more full-time jobs and sometimes barely earn minimum wage. Despite that, some of what I found out was still shocking. I met lots of workers who had become independent contractors and were responsible for all of the expenses of their trucks who sometimes didn’t make any money at all for a whole week. They were working 70-80 hours a week for free! And many of them were trapped by legal contracts that held the threat of tens of thousands of dollars in debt over their heads if they quit. They were literally debt-peons. As the research progressed I eventually learned that employers and third-parties working for them have created a whole network of information sources and consultants that convince workers to become contractors. It’s like a giant labor market confidence game and workers are the marks. The bigger take-away is that we can’t ignore the power – true class power – that employers have vis-à-vis labor in today’s largely unregulated labor markets. It’s real, it’s important, and we can’t understand the remarkable rise in inequality in the US without taking it into account.
Some of the stories of what happened to drivers in your book are heart breaking. What can be done to stop these employment practices?
Some of the stories are heart-breaking and there are many, many more that didn’t make it into the book. And unfortunately the same thing is happening to tens of thousands of workers right now – and not just in trucking. I see myself as a public sociologist so I very much hope that my book will help shine a light on the consequences of these practices for workers and the public. There are important challenges happening, including two class action lawsuits that have relied on my research. Beyond lawsuits, there are lots of particular things that could help, like paying truckers for all the work they do rather than just the miles they drive. And we can stop subsidizing through various programs and grants the cost of training new workers for some of the worst employers who have the highest rates of worker turnover. But in the end we have to address the imbalance of power between workers and employers. In the past truckers had a powerful union to represent and negotiate for them. Today most of them are protected only by our skeletal labor regulations and, frankly, these regulations don’t do much to protect these workers. We need to strengthen the laws around independent contracting so that workers are treated fairly. And we need to make those laws and the rights of workers simple and straightforward so workers understand and can act on them without the need of legal specialists and distant courts or regulators.
Steve Viscelli is a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. In addition to his academic research, he works with a range of public and private stakeholders to make the trucking industry safer, more efficient, and a better place to work. To learn more, please visit: http://www.steveviscelli.com/.