There's a stark reason why America's 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers can't strike

Tens of thousands of truck drivers were scheming earlier this year to strike. Such a work stoppage could have tremendous implications — some 71% of freight is moved by long-haul trucks, including groceries, manufactured goods, and even money.  “We’re not all fat slobs, and we don’t all do the stereotypical trucker things,” Will Kling, a truck driver based in Reno, Nevada, told Business Insider last year. “Trucking has been forgotten.”

“When you go to that store and you pick up that bottle of wine or that ketchup, you don’t think about the process it took to get it where it is,” Kling said. But, instead of teaching America at large to respect the 1.8 million big rig drivers, the much-hyped protest was a dud. Ultimately, just a few dozen people participated in the April “Black Smoke Matters” strike.

Read more: Thousands of truck drivers are organizing a strike in a Facebook group called ‘Black Smoke Matters’ — here’s the origin of the provocative name

Blue-collar workers in general have struggled in recent decades as pay and job security tumbles.

But, following the largest strike since 1970, General Motors employees represented by the United Automobile Workers secured this week an £11,000 bonus, a pledge to retain 9,000 jobs, and other wins, according to the Detroit Free Press. And that strike held serious economic implications for America’s largest automaker. Bank of America estimated that the walkout cost GM a whopping £2 billion.

It’s not just auto workers who are demanding pay and benefit boosts, either. In 2018, a record number of American workers went on strike; the most since 1986, Vox reported. That’s 485,000 employees ranging from public school teachers to Marriott hotel workers. 

The reason truck drivers can’t achieve the same wins dates back to the Carter era

This drive for collective action raises the question of why one of the largest labor forces of blue-collar workers can’t seem to strike, too. 

The reason goes all the way back to the late 1970s, when even liberal lawmakers were jumping on the bandwagon of deregulation. Trucking was seen as a key area in which deregulation could benefit consumers. Read more: Truck driver salaries have fallen by as much as 50% since the 1970s — and experts say a little-known law explains why

In the mid-20th century, truck drivers had to buy specific routes to move a certain type of product from one location to the other. But goods exempt from regulation moved at rates 20% to 40% below similar products that were regulated, according to Thomas Gale Moore, then a senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative public policy think tank Hoover Institution. Moore noted that rates for “cooked poultry” were 50% higher than rates for “fresh dressed poultry.”

Ultimately, that meant consumers were paying more because trucking was an industry with little competition and high barriers to entry. But it also meant truck drivers were better paid.

trucker protest 1973 1973: Truck drivers gather ahead of a fuel price protest in Worcester, Massachussetts.Spencer Grant/Getty Images

The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 removed many of the cumbersome regulations that the previous law, passed in 1935, had put in place. Most notably, it allowed new trucking companies to open with relative ease and removed many of the route regulations.

Companies also had more control over changing their rates.  The law was passed by President Jimmy Carter, who declared that the MCA would save consumers as much as £8 billion (£25 billion in 2018 dollars) each year. 

That deregulatory act also clamped down on unions

Following the passing of the MCA, truck drivers’ salaries tumbled. From 1977 to 1987, mean truck driver earnings declined 24%, according to research by Wayne State University economics professor Michael Belzer. And from 1980 to the present day, a Business Insider analysis found that median trucking wages have sunk as much as 35.8% in some metropolitan areas. 

“To be able to be a truck driver used to be quite a good blue-collar, middle-class job, but over the past 40 years, it has kind of dwindled away,” Gordon Klemp, principal of the National Transportation Institute, previously told Business Insider

trucker wages 1980 vs 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Andy Kiersz/Business Insider

Unions also lost much of their power. Membership in Teamsters, which was once one of the most powerful unions around, has declined dramatically. In 1974, Belzer wrote that there were 2,019,300 truckers in Teamsters.

Now, there are 75,000.  When truck drivers were largely in Teamsters, work stoppages were common — and sometimes quite dramatic. In 1970, a nationwide trucker strike went on for more than a month, dealing a serious economic blow in cities like Chicago and St.

Louis. In Cleveland, Ohio, the impacts even became one of domestic security as rock-throwing protesters drew 3,000 National Guardsmen to the city. “Helmeted troops, armed with M-1 rifles, were stationed in pairs on some overpasses, while other guardsmen rumbled along on patrol in quarter-ton trucks,” reported The New York Times on May 1, 1970. The strike led to a pay increase of nearly 30% for all Teamsters truckers.

The average nationwide hourly pay of £4 got a £1.10/hour bump, the Times reported.

Without a union, a nationwide strike to force wage and benefits bumps is nearly impossible

Bob Stanton, a longtime truck driver who didn’t support the Black Smoke Matters strikes, said it’s too challenging to wrangle all of America’s truck drivers to strike together. “You can’t get enough of trucking to participate,” he told Business Insider. Truck driver Lee Epling noted that truck drivers don’t have enough time or money to strike. “In order for a movement like (Black Smoke Matters) to actually happen, you need the two things independent owner operators like myself do not have,” Epling told Business Insider. “That’s the luxury of time, and a whole lot of money.” But unionization would ease the barriers to striking.

Most strikes are called by labor unions as a last resort while bargaining for a new contract. Even those who might not necessarily agree with the strike are prevented from working, because strikes are called after enough union members vote to stop working.  Read more: Truckers voted for Trump in droves.

Now they say his trade war is ‘killing’ their ability to make a living. And contract bargaining creates an event and reason for the strike to occur. Nonunionized workers don’t have the same access to information or unified purpose. 

trucker protest 1977: Jose Salazar, 6, joins Teamsters protest.

Others are Jose’s grandfather, Lamont Bumcrot, left, and Al Landers, both truck drivers for Safeway.Denver Post via Getty Images

Despite that, many truck drivers — a labor pool that leans right — interested in strikes don’t actually support unions. That includes Rick Blatter, a spokesperson for the Canadian Truckers Association who has led several trucking protests. “I am not a union man myself,” Blatter told Business Insider. “I am pro-choice.

Those who want to unionize should have this right. I personally do not want to be unionized. Those who don’t want to unionize should have the right to be non-union.” Still, Blatter is confident truckers might someday band together, particularly through a professional association. “Truck strikes don’t always work because organizing independent truckers is like organizing anarchists,” he said. “It is very hard. But everything is possible.

Eventually.”

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