- The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016
288 pp., $85.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $29.95 (e-book)
When Dave Dudley recorded the hit country song "Six Days on the Road" in 1963, long-haul trucking was an industry providing decent jobs. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, led by Jimmy Hoffa, wielded collective power to bolster wages and improve working conditions throughout the industry. Regulations established during the New Deal stabilized an industry that in the 1920s was a poster child for the dire consequences of cutthroat competition. As a result, high wages and steady profits were the norm throughout much of the trucking industry into the 1970s. For the mostly white, nearly all male, proudly working-class truckers celebrated by Dudley in 1963, "pullin' out of Pittsburgh and rolling down the eastern seaboard" was a job to be proud of, worth writing songs about. But that world is long gone, according to Steve Viscelli's eye-opening and distressing account of the long-haul trucker's life on American highways. Spending a mere six days on the road before making it home, Viscelli makes clear, now seems a luxury to most long-haul drivers.
Viscelli spent six months on the road working as a long-haul truck driver, enabling him to bring a deep sympathy to the interviews that support the book's arguments. The details of his personal experiences on the highway working for a major trucking firm he calls "Leviathan" are among the book's most engaging aspects. Readers gain an embodied sense of how driving a big rig evokes the conflicting emotions of exhaustion and elation, frustration and pride, helplessness and autonomy. Fine-grained descriptions abound: double-clutching an 18-wheeler's transmission, relishing unfried vegetables, populating log books with the lies necessary to satisfy both regulators and company managers, and accommodating gut-wrenching dispatch requests delivered via satellite from company headquarters. These descriptions make clear that the degrading aspects of the work far outweigh the positives. Viscelli also shows why the industry's largest firms experience extraordinary turnover rates, averaging more than 100 percent a year. New recruits quickly become keenly aware of the burdens and risks to self, family, and fellow road users that long-haul driving entails. How, Viscelli asks, did a once stable industry fall into such despair?
At one level, Viscelli's answer is straightforward: deregulation. Piggybacking on the research of Dale L. Belman (Dale L. Belman, Kristen A. Monaco, and Taggert J. Brooks, Sailors on the Concrete Seas: A Portrait of Truck Drivers' Work and Lives [East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005]), Michael Belzer (Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000]), myself (Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008]), and others, Viscelli explores the consequences of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which formally unraveled most of the [End Page 130] economic regulations of the New Deal era. Within a decade of the legislation's passage, once mighty common carriers descended into bankruptcy, the Teamsters membership base withered, and worker wages and freight prices tumbled. Alongside previous scholarship, Viscelli acknowledges that deregulation brought hypercompetitive forces to the American trucking industry. But he goes a step further in his analysis of the contemporary industry, bringing a critical and significant insight to bear on the question of what plagues American long-haul trucking. Deregulation, Viscelli convincingly argues, may have injected competition, but it also enabled new forms of collusion and interfirm coordination that have made worker exploitation into a strategic norm across the industry.
Specifically, Viscelli exposes a set of collusive practices whereby trucking firms rely on third-party "labor market intermediaries" (25) to recruit, train, and manage the long-haul workforce. Recruiting firms publish advertisements with "gross misrepresentations" (34) of possible driver incomes. Truck-driving schools dangle visions of lifelong opportunities while urging recruits to finance their training with contractual debts, luring them into "a modern form of debt peonage" (35...