Review: “Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation” – Michael H. Belzer

Before obtaining his Ph.D. in economics from Cornel University, Michael H. Belzer logged over 750,000 over-the-road miles as a Teamster tank-truck driver. Thus, along with his academic background, Belzer has firsthand experience working in the trucking industry. Like Belzer, I, too, am an academic with experience working in the trucking industry, increasing the appeal of this book to me. While I do not have a Ph.D. in economics, I worked as a tank-truck driver, albeit never unionized, before returning to college to study software development. Also, I recently published my first book, “Nagorno-Karabakh: A Reassessment of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict” (2022). Consequently, though our areas of specialization are different, Professor Belzer and I have much in common.

In “Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation,” Belzer shows how trucking has deteriorated from a middle-class occupation into virtual sweatshop-like conditions. The first page of the book is worth quoting at length for those unfamiliar with trucking as an occupation:

What would the world be like if we all worked like truck drivers? Imagine a world in which there is no effective minimum wage and no 40-hour workweek or time-and-one-half for overtime.

Imagine a world in which most people work more than 60-hours per week – not to get “ahead” but just to make ends meet.

Imagine a world in which most of us compete to offer our services at the lowest possible price but which is so competitive that we get what we want – and end up working longer hours just to earn enough to subsist.

Image a world in which people who work like this with no regular schedule – irregular days and irregular hours, switching from day to night and back again with little predictability.

Imagine a world in which production workers’ wages stop abruptly with every hiccup in the assembly line.

Imagine a world in which employers decide which work to pay you for and which you have to perform for free – and that work comprises 25% of your work day!

Imagine no further, because that is the life of the truck driver today in the hyper-competitive trucking industry. This book documents how truck drivers’ work has changed over the last two decades of deregulation. Truck drivers work longer hours for lower real pay than they earn decades ago. They suffer the indignity of being forced to wait for hours to get loaded or unloaded while people whose time is more highly valued are taken care of first. Their work and pay structure often calls for them to forego compensation for their time in trade for the opportunity to put in extra hours to run extra miles every week, often keeping them away from home for weeks at a time.

According to Belzer, three conditions characterize sweatshops. Firstly, the wages are so low that they are below subsistence. In particular, wages are so low that workers cannot support their families well enough to maintain their current class position and reproduce that level for future generations. Since the wages are too low to entice less skilled workers to enhance their human capital to enter the trade, this creates a vicious downward trend of labour shortages and a surplus of low-skilled workers. That this exists in the trucking industry is plainly visible to everyone.

Trucking companies in the US and Canada are increasingly resorting to desperate measures to find drivers. In Canada, 60% of the trucking industry is controlled by Punjabis, and at least one in five truckers in Canada is of a South Asian background. I have worked for a trucking company in Canada as a supervisor that was founded by an Indian immigrant and hired almost exclusively Temporary Foreign Workers (TPF) from India. A similar ‘shortage’ exists in the US, where teenagers are being recruited to work as drivers, and Punjabis control as much as 40% of trucking in California. Furthermore, wages in sweatshops are characteristically based on piece work, not hours worked, forcing workers to sweat themselves to increase their income. Secondly, a necessary condition of sweatshops is overworking, a natural consequence of low wages and piece work. Truck drivers in Canada south of the 60th parallel can work up to 14 hours per day and 70 hours in 7 days, while in the US, truck drivers can work 14 hours per day and 70 hours in 8 days, none of which qualifies for overtime. This is what truck drivers can legally work, but since drivers are paid not for hours worked but by the miles driven, a flat rate, or some other pay structure, and customers demand loads to be delivered on time, there is a strong incentive to work more than what is legal. When I used to deliver bulk LPG in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, I regularly worked more than 20 hours per day. I was even told by dispatch to violate Canadian HOS regulations. Thirdly, sweatshops involve unhealthy working conditions. Workers are often forced into cramped factories and exposed to toxic substances in poorly lit and ventilated spaces. Truckers live for weeks in small boxes, often without access to a bathroom or other facilities, forcing them to pee in water bottles, and are exposed to various horrible fumes and chemicals. Numerous studies indicate that truck drivers are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletal problems, cancer, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse issues.

Thus, Belzer concludes, sweatshop conditions — low wages, long hours, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions — have returned to trucking since economic deregulation. Indeed, the decline in driver earnings alone is staggering. According to Belzer’s statistics, although employment in trucking increased by 3.9% per annum since the 1980s, average real driver earnings dropped by 30% between 1977-1995. The average driver in 1997 dollars earned $11,793 less than in 1995 than they would have had wages remained at the same level as their 1997 wages — a 30% earnings drop. The average truck driver’s annual earnings declined four times more than for other blue-collar production workers. Had earnings remained constant for truck drivers, the average truck driver would have earned $140,658 more between 1977-1996 than they did.

The sweatshop conditions of the trucking industry are compounded by how most truck drivers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a minimum wage and maximum working hours for American workers. Working conditions in trucking are regulated only insofar as they help make roads safer since the Department of Transportation (DOT) does not concern itself with wages or industrial relations, making unionization of truckers almost impossible. Similarly, in Canada, inter-provincial trucking is regulated by the Canada Labour Code and Transport Canada. While a minimum wage is supposed to be paid even if not on an hourly basis, as stipulated in the Labour Code, most companies can avoid this through selective payment of piece work (ex., by-the-mile, per-load, etc.). Having worked as a supervisor at several trucking companies, I have firsthand experience of how employers avoid paying the bare minimum for subsistence.

However, despite all the statistics and evidence presented in this book, Belzer does not go so far as to criticize the capitalist system, which is the only major criticism I have of his book. Indeed, Belzer’s target audience seems to be trucking companies whose profitability has suffered under the weakening and later dissolution of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and those misled proponents of the “free market.” Belzer tries to sell the benefits of unionization and market regulation to the capitalists and their spokespeople, not criticize the capitalist system and alienate his target audience. “It is critical to understand,” Belzer writes, “that the presence of sweatshop-like conditions does not mean that evil, money-grubbing bosses just choose to exploit workers; that caricature would be a cartoon.”

On the contrary, although the profitability of trucking has indeed declined since deregulation due to unfettered competition, a class analysis would reveal that money-grubbing bosses are a major contributing factor, as is the whole capitalist system based on the exploitation of the working class. This is the issue with analyses devoid of a class perspective. As Michael Parenti wrote:

“When we think without Marx’s perspective, that is, without considering class interests and class power, we seldom ask why certain things happen. Many things are reported in the news but few are explained. Little is said about how the social order is organized and whose interests prevail. Devoid of a framework that explains why things happen, we are left to see the world as do mainstream media pundits: as a flow of events, a scatter of particular developments and personalities unrelated to a larger set of social relations — propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, and individual ambition, never by powerful class interests — and yet producing effects that serve such interests with impressive regularity.”

Belzer has compiled an impressive array of statistics and empirical evidence. Still, without Marx’s perspective, that is, without a class analysis, his conclusion offers little besides wishing for a return to the ‘good ol’ days’ of humane capitalism. Belzer’s book is nonetheless a devastating critique of the trucking industry. Although published 22 years ago, it was especially interesting to read in light of the debate about the nature of the recent trucker convoys in the US and Canada, including the siege of Ottawa, which even Professor Richard Wolff, a supposed Marxist economist, supported. According to Wolff, these truckers “just wanted to regain decent livelihoods and job conditions.” But nowhere is there evidence that ending the sweatshop-like conditions prevalent in trucking was among the objectives of the “freedom” convoys. Nobody was demanding higher wages, a shorter workday, or better schedules. What was apparent was the Nazi and Confederate flags flying in Ottawa, the desecration of the Terry Fox Memorial, and the anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and pro-Trump background of many of the organizers.

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