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We Got a Great Big Convoy

Who were the truckers?

By the time the rigs showed up to terrorize Ottawa in January, the anti-mask and anti-mandate protests had become old hat. Across North America the masks were coming off, and the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate. Covid itself, or at least the latest variant, was on the wane. The protesters needed to find a new victim of government oppression. They found him in the “trucker.”

Cross-border vaccine mandates were supposed to have triggered the trucker uprising. Last November, the Canadian public health agency announced that as of January 15, 2022, truck drivers would need proof of vaccination to enter the country. (Unvaccinated Canadian citizens could enter but had to go directly into quarantine.) The United States, in coordination with the government of Canada, began enforcing its own long-planned vaccine requirement a week later, on January 22.

These mandates were enacted over the objections of a united industry. The Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations lobbied against the new rules, par for the course for corporate lobbyists. The Canadian Trucking Alliance claimed that up to 20 percent of Canadian (twenty-two thousand) and 40 percent of American (sixteen thousand) drivers who used the border would no longer be able to cross. The CTA and the American Trucking Association both argued that the mandates would exacerbate so-called “driver shortages”—more on those in a moment.

Who, or what, is this trucker? And what work does that moniker perform?

Once the border mandates went into effect, though, the industry accepted its fate. “This regulation is not changing so, as an industry, we must adapt and comply with this mandate,” said CTA president Stephen Laskowski in a press release. “The only way to cross the border, in a commercial truck or any other vehicle, is to get vaccinated.” Both the ATA and CTA condemned the trucker protests. The Teamsters Union similarly “denounce[d] the ongoing Freedom Convoy protest at the Canadian border that continues to hurt workers and negatively impact our economy.”

Nevertheless, some truckers spurned the industry and their fellow truckers. The Freedom Convoys gave new life to what had become a tired rerun. In fact, the vast majority of protesters weren’t truckers, and very few actual truckers took part. But wearing the trucker badge—and calling themselves convoys—served the movement well. “We ❤ Our Truckers,” read the hand-made sign held by a loon standing on a salted Canadian sidewalk.

The media adopted the term unquestioningly. Stock photos of tractor trailers illustrated web articles. Television reporters pointed their cameras up toward the drivers and invited them to speechify about why they were there and when they were leaving (never). As the next insurrection motored toward Washington, D.C., the Washington Post’s editorial board observed, “The truckers, like everyone else, are tired of pandemic restrictions.” Those words appeared on the web accompanied by a photo of American flags and tractor trailers on an Illinois highway.

But who, or what, is this trucker? And what work does that moniker perform? A trucker isn’t just some guy who drives a truck. Dragging a trailer full of produce from the nearby warehouse to the local Kroger does not a trucker make. Neither, in this context, is a driver shuffling containers around the Port of Los Angeles a trucker. A trucker is that fiercely independent captain of a sixty-ton ship, long-hauling freight across the boundless North American landmass. In particular, he owns and proudly drives his own truck, a machine beautifully appointed both inside and out. This is the image of the trucker that animated the entire “Freedom Convoy” project. He’s the one earning it free media. At a time when anti-masker and anti-vaxxer protests no longer held much interest, the trucker and his convoy still did.

The trucker character was born of the highway blockades of 1973. Responding to a spike in diesel prices and the enactment of a national fifty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit, independent truckers staged a series of work stoppages. These protests were widespread, disruptive, and effective. Suddenly, the trucker was everywhere. A character once confined to the lyrics of country songs became a fixture in blockbuster movies. Americans bought CB radios by the millions and learned to talk like truckers. By the time the second oil crisis in 1979 sparked another round of blockades, work stoppages, and violence, North Americans were in love. Drivers of four wheelers had come to share the trucker’s pain, and he became their hero.

The national speed affected all long-haul truckers, regardless of their employment status. Paid by the mile in one form or another, time was literally money for every trucker. But, significantly, the jump in fuel prices didn’t impact most truckers because they were wage-earning employees. The company bore the burden. In contrast, the owner operator (OO) had to pay for his own fuel. And for the owner operator (OO), the lost income posed an existential threat: a missed loan payment meant having his truck repossessed and his livelihood lost.

It’s worth adding that the word convoy in reference to big rigs also flows from the speed limit. Before the 1970s, a convoy was a group of ships or military vehicles traveling in numbers for safety. Truckers likewise formed convoys to protect them from aggressive speed limit enforcement. Speed traps had sprouted like mushrooms—the Massachusetts State Police doubled the number of officers patrolling the Mass Pike. But the highway patrol can’t catch us all, the thinking went.

Covering the protests of the 1970s, reporters made clear the distinction between the fleet driver, the independent small businessman who drives his own truck, and the “Truck Driver-Owner” (as he was labeled in one headline). I’ve yet to see that distinction made in contemporary media reports. It’s obvious to me though that those rolling in the freedom convoys are independents. I note that the trucks by their six-foot tall, chromed exhaust stacks; bumpers polished to a mirror finish; eye shades over the windshields; and bejeweled air filters. Sexy female silhouettes on the mud flaps, Stars and Bars flags flown across the radiator, and praises to Jesus in the paint jobs are dead giveaways. Needless to say, fleet operators such as Schneider, Freightways, and UPS don’t spend money on bling. Their trucks don’t express political views.

As the Ottawa occupation stretched into its second and then its third week, I began to wonder how the truckers were paying their bills. Owner operators only make money when they are hauling freight but spend money to finance, maintain, and insure their trucks even when they are standing still. Driving without a loaded trailer—known as bobtailing—burns costly diesel as well. Some truckers reported that they were able to stay put because of the money raised by right-wing supporters. Organizers of the latest spinoff, the “People’s Convoy,” claim to have raised $1.5 million to support the truckers. Christopher Marston of the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom said the group expected the convoy’s fuel costs alone could reach $100,000 a day. The Washington Post reported in March that the group’s executive director recently pled guilty to fraud.

My next question was: How upset are they, really? No doubt listening to right-wing radio during all those hours on the roads leaves them in a constant state of simmering rage. But were they actually impacted by the new vaccination rules? Coming out of the pandemic, there is more than enough work to go around. Industry reports an acute shortage of truckers. Freight rates, and hence trucker revenues, continue to rise. Even the trucking companies are paying their workers more.

The so-called People’s Convoy ended its life a laughingstock.

As a practical matter, the convoys of 2022 failed. Government acceded to none of the protesters’ demands. Law enforcement resisted ousting the Ottawa protesters for weeks, although the chief of police resigned in disgrace as a result. And it took surprisingly long for officials to restore order at the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. One has to wonder (or perhaps one doesn’t) how law enforcement would have treated black activists demonstrating against racism in trucking. Although the blockades slowed cross-border traffic, they did not shut down international trade by any means.

The so-called People’s Convoy ended its life a laughingstock, its tweets and Instagram posts garnering only a handful of retweets and comments, about half of them mocking. Unable to reach D.C. proper (officials ensured they would not), organizers threatened to clog rush hour traffic on D.C.’s capital beltway, Interstate 495. As commuters know well, clogged is the normal state of the beltway for several hours a day. The convoy struggled even to merge onto the highway, where they sat, spread thin, in stop-and-go traffic like everyone else. A news dispatch on the American Foundation for Civil Liberties & Freedom website denies “rumors” that the entire project was a financial scam. By rumors, the foundation must be referencing the excellent and in-depth investigative reporting by the Washington Post.

The mendacity of this year’s protests becomes starkly clear when contrasted against the trucker protests of the 1970s. Back then, the OOs’ grievances were real, and their blockades of highways and occupations of fuel depots were highly effective. Government met most of their demands over both the short and the longer term.

The Arab oil embargo, triggered by U.S. support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, began in October of 1973. On December 3, 1973, the House of Representatives passed a bill lowering the national speed limit to fifty-five miles an hour in order to alleviate the energy crisis. A day later, the blockades began. Hundreds of tractor trailers sat idling on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania, causing a fifteen-mile backup. A convoy of fourteen hundred trucks blocked the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The blockades spread to five states, assembled ad hoc over CB radios. By mid-December, the fiercely independent OOs had organized themselves and announced a two-day work stoppage. They blocked access to truck stops and fuel pumps. Officials in Washington met with the drivers, but their response was inadequate, prompting an eleven-day stoppage in January 1974. All of this happened under a Republican administration.

The protesters attacked drivers who stayed on the road—including other OOs who needed to make ends meet. There were twenty-five reports of gunfire in Ohio, with at least five trucks hit; someone shot at truckers’ wives. A leader of the protests was arrested on charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Someone blew up driver Gene Johnson’s rig at a truck stop in Arkansas. By the time the protest wound down, two drivers who had defied the blockades were dead.

As they would half a century later, both the American Trucking Association and Teamsters disavowed the blockades. “We do not condone it and in fact deplore it,” ATA President William Bresnahan told the New York Times.

But the impact of these protests cannot be overstated. Some hundred thousand workers were laid off during the work stoppages, including fifteen thousand autoworkers, as a result of supply chain interruptions. Consumers began hoarding goods, and McDonald’s had to airlift hamburger patties to the Midwest. In their analysis of the events during the winter of 1973–1974, Harvard Business School researchers D. Daryl Wyckoff and David H. Maister concluded: “Most industry observers will agree that the shutdown has been the single most significant occurrence in the history of the industry.”

Wyckoff and Maister could not have known when they wrote those words in 1975 that history would repeat itself in 1979. The Iranian Revolution sparked a second oil crisis and another spike in fuel prices. There was no embargo or major supply drop, but panic buying caused the price of a barrel of oil to jump.

Drivers closed down truck stops, and a convoy of eighteen trucks marched on Washington. More than a hundred trucks created a thirty-mile-long backup on the Long Island Expressway. A driver in Wisconsin was run off the road by a gang of four, and his empty cattle trailer was torched. Pistol shots shattered the windshield of a truck in Iowa. Again, the newspapers were precise: these were “Independent Truckers.” It took three weeks for the protests to wind down.

The trucker entered the first oil crisis as an inchoate character; by the end of the decade, Americans knew the owner-operator well. He was Henry Fonda in the Great Smokey Roadblock, Jan-Michael Vincent in White Line Fever, and Kris Kristofferson in Convoy. Best-known of all, he was country singer Jerry Reed driving a Kenworth W900. Burt Reynolds, in his Firebird Trans Am, ran police interference as the pair made a beer run from Texarkana to Atlanta. Smokey and the Bandit was a box office smash in 1977, second only to Star Wars in gross sales. The plot, well, never mind. Suffice it to say that the wily Bandit (Reynolds) and Cledus (Reed) led Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by the inimitable Jackie Gleason, on a hilarious chase. (Sally “You like me, you really like me” Field was along for the ride.)

There were other, too many other, truckers on film and television throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The trucker in these films was an independent-minded pan-Southerner with a healthy disrespect for government. The law, the fifty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit, was illegitimate, and the lawman was corrupt, racist, and incompetent. In the films, the public rallies to the outlaw truckers’ side. One of Henry Fonda’s most ardent followers speaks for every driver who was ever pulled over when he announces over his CB, “These are the forces of oppression, the armies of darkness. These are the people who gave you the fifty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit.” Hundreds line the streets, waving signs of the “We ❤ Our Truckers” variety. In Convoy, the New Mexico governor enters into negotiations with the Rubber Duck (characters are known by their CB handles) at a massive nighttime rally reminiscent of Woodstock.

These films reflected the fantasies of a public idling in line for suddenly expensive gas and frustrated by driving fifty-five ponderous miles an hour. The big screen truckers engaged in righteous violence. Big rigs smashed through roadblocks, crushed motorcycles belonging to an evil biker gang, and turned a local jail house into a bundle of match sticks. Movies made it look fun. No doubt drivers of today’s massive pickups and SUVs have a latent desire to engage in such shenanigans themselves.

But the trucker protests of 1979 also marked the end of an era. The federal government had been limiting the number of trucking firms, setting freight rates, and assigning routes since the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. Deregulation began under Gerald Ford, accelerated under President Carter, and became codified in the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Shipping rates fell, service improved, and competition increased.

Today’s trucker has more in common with a Lyft driver than a Teamster. He isn’t the king of the road or the freedom-loving cowboy of popular imagination.

Deregulation threw truckers to the wolves. Teamsters Union membership accounted for 60 percent of the labor force in the late 1970s. By 1985, it had fallen to 28 percent. Teamsters’ wages, once averaging 50 percent more than their non-unionized colleagues, fell as well. Before deregulation, long-haul trucking had functioned as a quasi-public utility, as had the railroads and the electric grid before it. Government protected workers’ wages by limiting the number of “certificates of public convenience and necessity” that it issued in the same way that New York City issued medallions to limit the number of yellow cabs.

Nine in ten truckers in North America today work for fleets. Increasingly, they are being classified as independent contractors, a classification the Teamsters Union and labor advocates reject. They are piece workers, paid primarily by the mile. To make matters worse, trucking companies have developed complicated pay formulas for time lost when a load isn’t ready or for heavy traffic. Driving a truck is not a side gig. Unlike driving an Uber, driving a truck requires a commercial driver’s license course, at a cost of up to $10,000. That often means student loans. Students in Massachusetts, on average, take out $3,500 in loans, amounting to about half the average tuition.

Truck driver is also one of the top ten most dangerous jobs you can hold. (Leading the list are fishing, logging, and, worryingly, piloting a plane.) Long-haul trucking means days or even weeks away from home. It involves long hours in the saddle and eating the heart-clogging food available at truck stops. As with the shortage of nursing and the shortage of teachers, the so-called trucker shortage reflects the disparity between wages—a median of twenty-four dollars an hour—and working conditions. The average trucker earns a middle-class wage, but clearly not enough for most people to suffer the job. Annual turnover is 92 percent.

Rather than let the free market work, the government offers scholarships for driver training. Industry continues to lobby for lowering the driving age for interstate truckers from twenty-one to eighteen. The infrastructure bill signed last November created a pilot apprenticeship program that will accept up to three thousand eighteen-, nineteen- and twenty-year-old drivers. They must be accompanied by an experienced driver, and the trucks they drive must have speed limiters. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other safety advocates point to the extraordinarily high crash rates among men in this age group and have argued against the change.

Today’s trucker has more in common with a Lyft driver than a Teamster. He isn’t the king of the road or the freedom-loving cowboy of popular imagination. No doubt being anti-union correlates with being an anti-masker and an anti-vaxxer. And the monied interests and right-wingers behind the trucker convoys of 2022 have been wise to leverage the popular image of the trucker. But the public—and the press—should not be lulled into accepting that these protests have anything to do with border vaccines or the well-being of truckers. If the protesters really do ❤ our truckers, they would encourage them to join a union, demand better working conditions, and get vaccinated.