On July 30, Cathy O’Neil posted an article titled “The Manufactured Trucker Shortage” on her mathbabe blog. She opens the article with a quotation from an article in the Wall Street Journal that raises some alarm over the current shortage of long-distance trucker drivers, estimated to be about 30,000 drivers, and, worse, the projected shortage of 200,000 long-distance drivers by 2025.
O’Neil claims that inadequate compensation, degrading working conditions, and the competitive advantages enjoyed by large trucking companies are the main reasons for the shortage. Specifically, although the average truck driver makes about $50,000 per year, the averaging means that many drivers are earning considerably less than that annual income. Likewise, although the surveillance technology employed by trucking companies has reduced the liability created by drivers ignoring safety standards, it has also been abused in so many ways that drivers are arguably being monitored by some companies much more closely than their office employees are. Lastly, the competitive advantages enjoyed by large trucking companies have forced many small companies to sell out or to fold and have also eliminated many of the opportunities previously available to independent drivers who own the rigs that they operate.
As a result of this combination of factors, in 2014, long-distance truck drivers had a quarterly turnover rate of more than 90%. Given the training and certification required to be a long-distance driver of big rigs, that sort of turnover rate is clearly unsustainable within the trucking industry.
Since O’Neil does not mention this in her article, I am assuming that its timing is coincidental. But July 30 was also the 40th anniversary of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
I think that it probably safe to say that no other figure in American labor history has so embodied both the best and the worst possibilities within a strong labor movement. On the one hand, Hoffa had a deep and lifelong commitment to expanding and enhancing the reach of organized labor, earning him the undying loyalty of most of the drivers whom he represented as president of the Teamsters. On the other hand, his flagrant abuses of union power and resources greatly contributed to the erosion of public confidence in the salutary influence of labor unions.
It is worth noting that Hoffa’s leadership was largely responsible for the expansion of the Teamsters not just into a nationwide union but into the largest and most powerful union in the nation—during the heyday of the labor movement. It is also worth noting that at the same time that he was facing a series of trials on corruption charges, Hoffa managed to establish, for the first time, national rates for long-distance truckers by which companies had to abide if they wanted their freight to continue to be hauled by truck. Lastly, it is worth noting that although Hoffa had longstanding ties to organized crime that provided some of the muscle that contributed to the Teamsters becoming one of the most powerful labor unions in history, he was also a very staunch advocate for Civil Rights throughout his career as a labor leader.
With the perspective afforded by history, it is easy to see that in accumulating and maintaining their power, labor leaders can become as prone to corruption as any other powerful political figures. Yet, forty years after Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, it is very clear that however much he was willing to compromise his principles, he paid a greater personal price for those choices than most political leaders usually do.
It should also be clear that none of what labor leaders did as the unions consolidated their power means that labor unions will inevitably be corrupt or that the possibility that they might become corrupt negates all of the potential good that they can do—not just for the workers whom they represent but for the broader society in which they function.
Although the Teamsters is still, comparatively, a strong union, its strength is being measured against the current, general weakness of the labor movement. For evidence of this weakness, one need only to note the stark contrast between the insufficient compensation and increasingly oppressive working conditions that O’Neil reports in her article and all that Jimmy Hoffa was able to accomplish in the early 1960s.
For decades, the Far Right has pointed to the behavior of “corrupt union bosses” such as Jimmy Hoffa to denigrate the principles and value of labor unionism, but they themselves bristle when the excesses of corporate leaders are used to denigrate the principles and value of unregulated capitalism.
So I cannot resist pointing out that Jimmy Hoffa did go to prison for his crimes and then was murdered, one assumes, for his corrupted ambition. In striking contrast, no executive of any bank or investment firm responsible for the financial scams that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008 has ever been prosecuted, never mind convicted, for promoting and for profiting fabulously from that wholesale corruption of our financial system.
Every strong political and economic force requires an equivalent counter-force or a society will eventually go catastrophically out of balance—politically, economically, and culturally. There seems to be much evidence that, at the very least, to the degree that we are going to allow corporate malfeasance to go unpunished, we need strong labor unions. In the absence of such unions, the Great Recession will become just one in a recurring cycle of economic catastrophes, with no one immune to their devastating effects except, of course, for the oligarchs who have perpetrated them.
Cathy O’Neil’s complete post is available at: http://mathbabe.org/2015/07/30/the-manufactured-trucking-worker-shortage/