When the Freedom Convoy of truckers broke out in Canada earlier this year, Jacobin called it “a front for a right-wing, anti-worker agenda.” Vox dubbed it an “unpopular uprising.” These commentators dismissed the protesters’ concerns over vaccine mandates, arguing that the public-health emergency justified the restrictions. What they failed to understand is that the vaccine mandate was only the latest in a long line of impositions on some of the hardest working members of society.
From farmer protests in the Netherlands to trucker convoys in Canada, populist workers’ risings have spread across the West. Faced with rampant inflation, flat wages, and intrusive mandates, the people who feed and move society have begun to revolt. Today both the left and the right claim to stand for workers. But as the situation of truckers shows, neither side understands their concerns.
In the United States and Canada, truckers are exempted from laws mandating overtime pay. They have also been the first to feel the lash of green policies and the merciless gaze of the surveillance state.
Start with the green diktats. Under rules imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007, the diesel engines in large trucks must include emissions-control systems designed to reduce the emission of nitrogen oxides and soot—a noble goal. Unfortunately, these systems are very costly to build, purchase, and maintain, so much so that Caterpillar, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heavy construction equipment and diesel engines, ceased to build motors for the on-highway truck market. As always with such legislation, the costs were passed on to trucking companies. These companies already operate on thin margins; trucking companies and owner-operators had to eat the cost of these systems, leaving less profit available to share with drivers.
Then, in 2017, the Electronic Log Device mandate came into effect in the United States, followed by an analogue in Canada. Because of these laws, most big rigs operating in North America now have a surveillance system installed on the truck that tracks its location and the working status of the driver. Most long-haul drivers live in their rigs, so there is no escape from being monitored. In addition to suffering low pay relative to the demands of the job, and no guarantee of overtime, truckers in America and Canada are forced to take on Big Brother as an unwelcome hitch-hiker, watching their every move, recording any minor mistake for later punishment by authorities.
The Freedom Convoy was followed by protests in the Netherlands, in which farmers rose up against policies designed to reduce nitrogen emissions at the cost of their livelihoods. More protests are expected this winter, due to rising energy prices caused in part by green policies. If the treatment of the truckers and farmers is any indication, the left will denounce these protesters as kulaks, fascists, or, heaven forbid, global-warming deniers. The right, meanwhile, increasingly claims to be the party of the working class. But helping these people will take more than cultural posturing, and will require backing legislation that addresses material concerns and conditions.
On May 27, and still in place at time of writing, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration extended a waiver on rules limiting the number of hours truckers can work, comically citing, at this late hour, the Covid-19 pandemic. These waivers are generally used in emergencies for truckers who haul essential goods—for example, during cold snaps in order to deliver home-heating fuel. The waivers are an indication of how much the country relies on truckers amid supply-chain problems and a labor shortage. Yet these same truckers don’t have the right to receive overtime pay. Truckers are exempt from requirements that workers be paid overtime after 40 hours a week. The exemption dates back to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which granted workers overtime and minimum-wage protections. Lawmakers at the time thought that truckers would be incentivized to work an unsafe number of hours if they received overtime.
Whatever may have been the case in the New Deal era, in 2022, most truckers work 60 or more hours a week. Many are paid by the mile and more often than not receive no overtime pay. Even local delivery drivers are often expected to work right up to the federally mandated work limit, never mind those running produce from California to the East Coast.
It is estimated that there are roughly 3 to 3.5 million truckers working in the United States at any given time, about half in a local capacity, and the other half “over the road,” where many spend weeks at a time away from their families. It isn’t a job for everyone, and remains one of those gigs with a very high turnover rate, such that trucking industry groups like the American Trucking Association constantly claim that there is a shortage of drivers, no matter the economic circumstance. Much taxpayer money is spent subsidizing truck-driving schools, a significant share of which are directly owned by America’s largest trucking concerns. No one ever thinks to ask these companies: Why can’t you keep anyone around?
In April, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) introduced the Guaranteeing Overtime for Truckers Act. The bill is simple and straightforward, consisting of one line, which would remove the exemption for truckers overtime pay in the FLSA. It isn’t part of an omnibus spending bill, standing alone, giving out no pork nor requiring effort of anyone. Levin, who has since lost his Democratic primary, will soon be out of the house. Will any of those who claim to support workers—in either party—keep alive this effort to grant truckers overtime?
Current legislation is only going to make life for truckers harder. On June 30, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to a new law in California, known as Assembly Bill 5, which could force roughly 70,000 independent truckers in the Golden State to give up their businesses and become direct employees of the companies they work for. The law, championed by Democrats, was intended, in part, to end a practice in trucking called “lease operating,” in which a company offloads expenses by selling a truck to a driver, who must then assume all the responsibilities of fueling and maintaining it. These lease agreements are a form of indentured servitude and should be stamped out.
Even so, many independent contractors do have legitimate arrangements, own their own trucks apart from exploitative leases, and are now faced with having to work as employees for companies that don’t pay overtime and care nothing for work-life balance. A sizable portion are likely to quit. Given that California is the home of the largest port on the West Coast, and produces a significant share of the fruit and vegetables which feed America, the effects of this law could be far-reaching.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a sterling record of helping workers. But the party affiliation of anyone trying to rectify the problem is as inconsequential as the 27,000th telephone pole I drove by today. Perhaps it behooves the types of commentators with Ukraine flags or syringes or the Hammer and Sickle in their online bios to get out from behind their screens and talk to a trucker who drives his own rig and hasn’t seen his family in two weeks. Likewise, perhaps some of the GOP’s newly minted tribunes of the proletariat can support Levin’s sensible bill. Ending this pay disparity and thereby increasing the wage floor for everyone is the very least they can do.