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I Used To Make $100K As A Trucker. Now I Make Minimum Wage.
Plus: Teamsters at UPS reach a tentative deal.
We’ve spent the last several weeks working on a new video about what destroyed one of the best blue-collar jobs in America. It’s part of a new series we’ve launched about labor in America and the jobs that used to be great (and why they aren’t great anymore).
More on that below, but first breaking news. Hours ago, the Teamsters reached a tentative contract deal with UPS, potentially averting the largest strike in modern U.S. history.
It would raise minimum pay for part-time workers to $21/hour. Current part-timers would get up to a $1.50/hour additional raise, and UPS would also hire 30,000 full-time jobs.
The contract also has a host of other provisions that workers demanded, including:
- The end of the two-tier wage system for drivers
- Top rates of $49/hour for full-timers
- No more driver-facing cameras or harassment by bosses
- Air conditioning in the trucks
340,000 members will be able to vote on the contract from August 3 to 22. We’ve been talking to Teamsters all day and will continue following the story.
I Used To Make $100K As A Trucker. Now I Make Minimum Wage.
By Brooke Shuman, Producer, The Class Room series at More Perfect Union
Long haul trucking is an $800 billion industry that employs 3 million people and hauls 72% of all freight in America. Even though truck driving is a job that is essential to the economy, many drivers find themselves working dangerously long hours and not having enough take-home pay to support themselves or their families. Truckers made on average $110,000 in 1980 but today that average is just $48,000. So what happened in those critical 40+ years?
This last May Day we went to Washington D.C. for a rally led by the Truckers Movement for Justice outside of the Department of Transportation (DoT) to find out. The truckers had traveled from all over the country to demand that officials address the awful conditions on the job. We spoke to Billy Randel, a trucker that’s been driving for over thirty years and has seen trucking go from a job that paid well and had a flexible schedule to one that can have you on the road 100 hours a week, barely making minimum wage. “It was a hard, dirty job,” Billy said, “but it was a good job.” We met up with Billy again when he was dropping off a load in New York City–right on Wall Street in fact–and spent the day with him. Billy knows that if truckers were able to effectively strike, it could grind the whole economy to a halt, but truckers just don’t have the political power they had decades ago.
In the 1960s and 70s, most truckers were unionized with the Teamsters, one of the most powerful unions in American history, and most drivers had a steady job with benefits. The industry is now much more fragmented. Some drivers operate as independent contractors, leasing out their trucks from a company, some drivers work for a company, and some are truly independent, running their own businesses. But less than 20% are union members.
Low pay and long hours in the trucking industry aren’t a recent phenomenon. The industry has been in crisis for decades thanks to a little-known bill signed by President Jimmy Carter: The Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Deregulation brought cheaper prices for consumers, and lower shipping rates for companies, but it decimated the powerful trucking industry. We talked to Steve Viscelli, the author of The Big Rig, about how after deregulation, union membership declined, wages collapsed, and the business started hemorrhaging experienced, professional drivers. The turnover rate at most companies is now at 100% every single year. That becomes a huge problem when there’s an upset in the economy–think of the first year and a half of the pandemic when the American Trucking Associations announced that the industry was 80,000 drivers short and the supply chain faltered.
Truckers are also subject to strict surveillance on the job. In 2017, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA) introduced Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), which track drivers’ time spent on the road and their location. ELDs are designed to make sure that truckers aren’t driving too many hours on a given day. The longer a driver works, the more likely they are to have an accident. The rules created by the FMCSA are very strict–a driver has 14-hour shifts and is allowed to drive for 11 hours total each day. But it isn’t always easy to work in that 14-hour window. The truckers I met in DC told me that they often wait for hours to pick up or deliver a load and there are lots of other things outside of a driver’s control that can slow them down, like bad weather, traffic, maintenance issues, or just the need to rest. Many truckers are paid by the mile or paid by the load, so anytime they aren’t driving, they’re losing money. We talked to Caleb Fernandez, a driver who says that during the time he was driving without an ELD, he was able to make his own schedule, and he was more rested and more productive. Some days he would drive in 8-hour chunks, and other days he would take longer breaks between shifts, but he was still clocking 70 hours a week.
Truckers like Caleb want regulators to design ELDs to accommodate how drivers actually work, while still keeping the roads safe through limits on how many hours a driver can be driving. Billy has another idea: if drivers were paid more, they’d be less likely to overwork themselves to make a delivery. A 2018 study from the DoT found that waiting on loads and deliveries, known as detention time, costs drivers up to $1 billion annually.
The Biden administration has created a task force to address exploitative leasing agreements that companies create with independent contractors. But the core demands of the Truckers Movement for Justice aren’t currently being addressed: many truckers are working far more than 70 hours a week and aren’t being paid for all the time spent on the road. This includes overtime. Trucking is one of the professions that are exempt from overtime pay in the Fair Labor Standards Act. There’s a bill that would address this introduced by Senator Alex Padilla, the Guaranteeing Overtime for Truckers Act. It would be one way to address lost pay for drivers, but much more will need to be done to bring drivers to a fair standard of living and make the industry itself less volatile.
You can watch the first video in our series on jobs that used to be great here. It centers on Coy Young, who nearly ended his life due to the corruption and consolidation in the beef industry. He’s one of 14,700 cattle farmers who will have to sell their farms or go bankrupt this year. We spoke to Coy about his story.