There are nearly 100,000 independent truckers in the United States today -- all of whom own and operate their own trucks. They generally lease their rigs to trucking companies that have acquired operating authorities from the Interstate Commerce Commission. And it is illegal for owner-operators to offer their services directly to shippers without this ICC authority. In return for the use of their equipment in interstate and intrastate commerce, independent truckers--a term more of a hope than a reality -- are paid on the basis of miles traveled or percentages of the hauling charges arranged in advance between shippers and carriers. Owner-operators have no roles in these negotiations or those policies developed by such government agencies as the ICC. Consequently, independent truckers have become the orphans of the trucking industry, living under rules and regulations they have had no voice in creating.
In his tight, informative and well-written new book, "Open Road: Truckin' on the Biting Edge," Axel Madsen vividly describes the personal and professional plight of the independent trucker. Madsen quotes William J. Hill, a leader of the independent truckers' movement, who insists, "As things stand now, we're nothing but sharecroppers."
A biographer and journalist, Madsen frames his story around the adventures of veteran trucker Junior Carlton and his hired hand, Karen Long, a 26-year-old woman with two small children, during a long haul from Seattle to Rahway, N.J. Driving in Carlton's 1980 13-speed Peterbilt, the two truckers make their coast-to-coast run in three days, encountering highway patrolmen, bad weather and runaway trucks along the way. Madsen describes all of these and other experiences in the appropriate CB jargon. For instance, truckers stop and eat at "chew and chokes," in lieu of truck-stop restaurants.
But all of the color and drama is by-the-way in his excellent analysis of the state of the owner-operator in the aftermath of the deregulation of the trucking industry. After reading just a few chapters, it becomes clear that once the country music and cowboy hats are stripped away from these truckers, all that remains are blue-collar businessmen, struggling for economic survival and caught in miles of government red tape.
As Madsen explains, even while on assignment for a carrier, the independent trucker is responsible for all expenses, such as fuel, tolls, licenses, assorted mandatory permits, repairs and maintenance, taxes, overnight accommodations and even any damages to the freight they haul. In addition, they are often responsible for the loading and unloading of their trucks. Because of all of these expenses, they frequently work for little or no money.
Madsen also writes that another major problem for the independents is that related to "state's rights." The national interstate highway system is clogged with state and local regulations and restraints on trucking commerce, which vary from state to state. Essentially, state clearances must be ensured by individual truckers whether making deliveries or simply passing through.
"The hostile environment is turning the independent into a bandito," Madsen quotes a trucking executive. "He has to run over 10 hours a day and lie in his log book, and he has to run faster than 55 mph. Many of them have a stack of driver's licenses. And the irony is that they are the ones who believe in the system, the American way! The American way has turned them into criminals."
Many truckers thought deregulation was going to be a quick fix to their problems. But this was short-term thinking. Because of the rate-cutting and cutthroat competition present in the trucking industry today, most independent truckers are finding themselves more desperate than ever. By the time one trucker outbids another for a back-haul load, he finds himself operating his equipment for a bag of hamburgers and a handful of bennies.
Even if there were a willingness among the independents to bargain collectively in order to achieve minimum contract standards, they would find themselves threatened with antitrust litigation because they have been generally viewed as "independent contractors" by the National Labor Relations Board. However, if owner-operators attempt to work as true independent contractors, and haul directly for shippers -- bypassing leasing agreements with ICC-authorized carriers -- they are in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.
Although Madsen ignores the need or prospects for a trade union comprised of independent truckers, he does note the June 1979, national independent truckers' shutdown. Among the leaders of this violent, three-week work stoppage was Bill Hill, chairman of the loosely organized National Independent Truckers Unity Coalition (NITUC). Hill presided over 50 angry men and women, representing nearly as many groups, all with different names and acronyms. Although the intention of the shutdown was to wage holy war against a five-headed monster -- the federal government, the oil companies, the carriers, the shippers and the Teamsters Union -- the truckers, in the end, primarily fought among themselves. Within NITUC, it became everyone for himself. And that is the principal problem for independent truckers -- too much independence and not enough organization.
The truckers' political goals are not unlike their professional goals on the highway: To get from here to there as quickly as possible at a minimal cost and risk. Madsen's "Open Road," wittingly or unwittingly, proves once again that the short-term goals of independent truckers have always led to long-term consequences. And, frankly, this is one book I wish I had written.