Russell Walker, a 50-year-old truck driver from Louisiana, is the first to admit that his profession — spending sometimes weeks away from home, getting paid by the mile no matter how long you spend sitting in traffic — has its hardships. “I told my father I would never drive a truck,” Walker says. “But this idiot’s been driving a truck for 22 years now.”

Over the past few years, though, Walker thinks he’s found a way to make it at least a little better: At the invitation of the company he works for as an independent contractor, Little Rock, Ark.-based Central Hauling, he helped form an advisory board of nine drivers to represent the concerns of all 256 people in the fleet. The council now meets a few times a year with management to talk over issues such as safety, pay and driver training.

“We can’t all talk together, so we had to come up with the voice of the contractors,” Walker says. “We’re not a union" — independent contractors legally can't form one — "we just had to get together and say, 'This is our company as well.'"

More than a voice, the council has developed training modules to help drivers manage the business aspects of being an independent contractor, like keeping up with truck payments and minimizing fuel costs. And council members often field calls from colleagues who have issues while they’re out on the road, or even just when they’re lonely.

Walker said the council has helped the drivers feel connected to the business.

“You’re not going to leave Central Hauling because you weren’t treated fairly, or you didn’t have the resources to be successful,” Walker says.

That solves a key problem for Central Hauling, as well. General manager Bobby McElyea credits the council with the fact that, in an industry grappling with about 100 percent turnover every year, Central Hauling finished out 2015 at only half as much — which lowers recruiting costs, without having to woo drivers with more expensive perks. "I think that’s a huge success for our company,” McElyea says.

Driver councils have long existed in the trucking industry, but they’ve become increasingly popular in the last few years as a tightening labor market has given people more options for steady work, and employers across the economy struggle to increase their workers’ productivity through “engagement.” There are also new feedback mechanisms, like a company called WorkHound, which advertises itself as a “driver retention app.”

“Pay is one part of a much larger equation,” says WorkHound’s founder and chief executive Max Farrell. With one dispatcher overseeing scores of drivers, things can get lost in translation, leading to frustration for both sides. “When that continues to happen, drivers start seeking out greener pastures.”

Now, Arkansas Trucking Association president Shannon Samples Newton estimates probably half of large companies — those with more than 250 drivers or so, whether they’re employees or independent contractors — have bodies that represent drivers.

“It seems reasonable that when our industry is experiencing a driver shortage, as we are now,” Newton says, "the rate at which we use tools to engage and retain drivers, especially inexpensive ones like communication forums and opportunity for interaction with management, would increase."

The use of employee councils, however, has historically been controversial — and can risk running afoul of labor law.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many companies started designing “employee involvement” programs to gather worker feedback. Similar bodies are popular in Germany, where "works councils" provide input into company operations, in an approach that has garnered praise in the U.S.. But the National Labor Relations Act, which governs employee voice in the workplace, has a broad provision aimed at preventing the creation of “company unions”: Any quasi-representative body that discusses wages and working conditions and could functionally be controlled by bosses.

"If companies form 'councils,' they have very circumscribed rights under the law because they can’t discuss anything important,” says Michael Belzer, an expert in trucking industry labor policy at Wayne State University. Central Hauling’s council, he says, "sounds like an employer-dominated labor organization, if they talk about any mandatory subjects of bargaining."

In a couple of landmark cases, the National Labor Relations Board ruled such employee involvement programs to be illegal, and a business-backed bid to change the law failed in the late 1990s. Unions have opposed efforts to make room for those lesser forms of engagement, worrying that they could undermine legitimate organizing drives.

“At the end of the day, you can be making demands, but you have no legal recourse,” says Kara Deniz, a spokeswoman for the Teamsters, who have occasionally encountered driver councils in trucking companies that serve ports. “In a lot of these cases, it ends up being almost like a front for management. 

“My biggest fear initially was they’re all going to get organized and come in and demand a big pay raise."
— Central Hauling General Manager Bobby McElyea

Central Hauling’s McElyea says he doesn’t tell the council what to do, or even monitor its activities. At the outset, that seemed like a risk. “My biggest fear initially was they’re all going to get organized and come in and demand a big pay raise,” McElyea says. But after a while, he said that communication has created greater efficiencies that allowed for a 17 percent increase in compensation, no strikes required.

That’s why Walker makes clear that the council’s and management’s interests are largely aligned. “We don’t disagree much, because they’ve been in business for a long time, they know without drivers there would be no company,” he says. "I'd say 80 percent of the time, we come to that agreement and say 'ok, this was best for the company.’”

That’s how interactions in these types of driver councils often go: The company wants to do something, and seeks the input of drivers to make sure there won’t be a mass revolt. In the case of Maverick Transportation, also based in LIttle Rock, a driver council helped hash out a pay-for-performance program that allowed drivers to earn extra money for things like scoring well on inspections and getting good customer feedback.

“It was very important for us to design something that felt right for the drivers,” director of operations John Coppens says."They helped us design what has become a really popular program." 

Maverick's driver council is made up of each year's 12 drivers of the month, who are hand-picked by the company. They meet quarterly with executives, which gives drivers a look inside life at headquarters. And sometimes, they like what they see. "I got to learn the other side of the company, that was the biggest thing," says driver Jimmy Fitzwater, 55, who sat on the council last year. "I would not turn down the opportunity to come into the corporate side."

Ultimately, that’s why the power of this form of input to improve wages and working conditions for truck drivers — and thereby target the root causes of high turnover — is limited, says Steve Viscelli, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Swarthmore College. In a forthcoming book on the economics of the trucking industry, he describes how trucking companies try to keep drivers around without increasing their costs.

"They’re trying not to bid up the wages among themselves, but they’re trying to also delay exit," Viscelli says. “They know that in order to meaningfully reduce that turnover rate, they're going to to have to raise wages substantially. So collectively they kind of manage it. And that’s way cheaper than solving the problem.”