A look at why nationwide truck driver strikes don't work

“Shut ’em down!” Talk of a nationwide driver shutdown has been echoing around the country for years – most notably and recently on social media sites. But these angry words have done little to coalesce truck drivers into a potent force that can bring about the changes they desire.

Empty shelves during the early days of the pandemic brought home to Americans the vital importance of trucking. The consuming public noticed and applauded drivers’ selfless sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drivers themselves took pride in what many considered their patriotic duty to keep the nation supplied with essentials like food and medicine even while they suffered to find their own meals on the road.

However, despite their service, public accolades, and personal sacrifice, drivers ask: “What do we have to do to get our voices heard?” Some would say that they have been heard but to no avail. “I think they are often heard,” explained Steve Viscelli, a former driver and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve been hearing about problems, whether it’s ELDs, hours of service or other complaints for the last few years.

Drivers just don’t have the power to influence change the way many of them would like to have,” added Viscelli, who authored “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.” “The current situation stands in stark contrast with the history of the industry, which is, without a doubt, a group of workers who were among the most powerful in the entire country,” Viscelli said. “There’s no industry where you had a stronger union than the Teamsters. Not only were they strong in the markets where they were present, but markets everywhere.”

That was decades ago. The Teamsters in the 1960s, then led by Jimmy Hoffa, not only negotiated rates for their union members but, by default, other drivers as well. The union negotiated The National Master Freight Agreement which set wages and working conditions for truck drivers across the country.

Driver pay and benefits were relatively high, solidly middle class, and were often bettered incrementally during subsequent negotiations as a nationwide driver strike was a formidable threat.   This all changed largely due to industry deregulation. Drivers lost their negotiating power as fleets undercut each other to entice shippers to sign on.

Ironically, many independent drivers sought deregulation because they wanted to enter new markets and wrangle for higher rates, but deregulation was not always to their benefit. “I don’t think the outcomes were everything they had hoped, but that’s a strong example of where owner-operators were able to see the goal that they wanted realized, which was to deregulate the industry,” Viscelli said. “Again, for many of them, I don’t think it turned out anywhere near what they hoped, but they certainly played an important, at least symbolic role, in representing to Congress and the Carter administration the downsides of regulation for small-business truckers.” Now, with about a third of drivers working under their own authority as owner-operators, a nationwide strike or work stoppage by this large segment of the industry is arguably illegal under antitrust laws.

The other impediment to a wide-ranging work action is high turnover in the truckload (TL) sector, a group which often calls the loudest for work actions. New TL drivers, especially, cannot afford to stop working even for a short time. Their pay is lower than most veteran drivers, and some might not want to jeopardize their probationary status.

Adding to this is the “de-skilling” of the job which allows fleets to hire less-experienced drivers to take the place of anyone who decides to park their rig in defiance. “They can just put another ‘meat in the seat,'” a long-haul driver who prefers to go by ‘JB,’ told FleetOwner. With independents wanting their demands met, truckload drivers putting forth their agenda, and less-than-truckload, package delivery, private fleets and others focused on their particular issues, a consensus is challenging to reach.

“I think the main reason why drivers can’t execute a work stoppage on a nationwide scale is because the trucking industry is so fragmented,” explained Donnie Williams, executive director of the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the Walton College and co-author of the report “Truck Driver Burnout: Ways Carriers Can Fight Stress-Related Turnover.”   Williams added that drivers he talks to say they don’t want to hurt their fellow citizens but want to strike out at management and government, whom they see as their impediments to higher pay and the freedom to work when and how they want. “In other words, they don’t want to be limited by how much they can earn,” he said. However, calling attention to government regulations by rolling slowdowns like one had seen in Indianapolis last year to protest ELDs had the effect of angering some motorists without bringing any regulatory relief. “It just got people pissed off at us,” said JB, who was planning to participate but decided at the last minute to continue driving.

“I think what drivers are looking for is more favorable working conditions: More time at home, a company that will give them good routes, the type of routes that they want. I think those are the types of things that truck drivers care about. Pay is obviously there, and it has not kept up with inflation,” Williams added.

Another reason for frustration and strike rhetoric is that the job isn’t what many newcomers expected. Many rookie drivers feel that the job is not what they envisioned. They thought they would have more freedom, more pay and nobody looking over their shoulder, Williams noted.

Moreover, what sounded like a well-suited job turned out to be more difficult than expected. “They’re not ready for the loneliness,” Williams recalled from his many interviews. “They think they can handle it because, ‘Hey, I’ll get to see the country. I can do this.’ But what we see is that you can’t prepare for being by yourself unless you actually experience it. They’ll go through the training, they’ll get their CDL, they’ll do their two, three or four weeks, whatever it is depending on the company, and then all of a sudden they’re on their own.”

“The frustration [which leads to strike or slowdown talk] has to do with stressors that come with feeling like they’re not paid enough and also feeling like they’re not respected by other industry partners; these are points of frustration that they can’t do anything about,” Williams concluded. “The only control they have is to strike, but only union truckers that can really do that. Drivers feel like they’re in a place where they have no control.” The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator (FMCSA) wants to evaluate two additional options for commercial drivers to split sleeper berth periods in a new pilot program that would look at 6/4 and 5/5 splits.

“FMCSA continues to explore ways to provide flexibility for drivers while maintaining safety on our roadways, FMCSA Deputy Administrator Wiley Deck, the acting head of the agency, said on Jan.

14. “This proposed pilot program will provide needed data and feedback for the agency to use now and in the future. Gathering more data on split-sleeper flexibility will benefit all CMV stakeholders. We encourage everyone to review this proposal and provide their public comments.”

The FMCSA plans to publish the pilot program proposal in an upcoming Federal Register notice, at which point there will be a 60-day public comment period. This past fall, new HOS rules allowed drivers to split their sleeper berth time into two parts so long as at least one of the times was at least seven hours and the other was at least two hours, which created an option for an 8/2 or 7/3 split. These times do not count against a driver’s 14-hour driving window. 

In the proposed pilot program, participating drivers would have the option to split their 10 hours of sleeper berth time closer down the middle — so long as the two periods combine for at least 10 hours. When operating under the pilot program exemption, drivers would be expected to split their sleeper berth time into two periods of at least four hours. Drivers would be free to choose whether or not to operate under the exemption based on their schedules.

Carriers and drivers desiring to participate would apply to FMCSA for acceptance in the proposed pilot program. The pilot program would seek commercial drivers from small, medium and large fleets who regularly use current sleeper berth provisions. FMCSA estimates a sample size of 200 to 400 drivers.

The study would last between six and 12 months and begin with a 90-day period of drivers operating under the current rules. After that start, participating drivers would receive temporary exemption from current rules to allow them to split their off-duty time into a 6/4 or 5/5 split.  The pilot program would collect driver identification details and data on sleep, safety-critical events (SCEs), subjective sleepiness ratings, and behavioral alertness throughout driver participation in the study.

As part of its rulemaking process on hours of service reform, FMCSA asked for public input for additional data regarding potential split periods of 6/4 or 5/5. During the comment period, the agency did not receive any additional data or studies regarding these options, so this new pilot program would gather it.  FMCSA has been working with motor carrier stakeholders on the sleeper berth periods issue.

Both motor carriers and organized labor have supported efforts to explore additional options, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who stated that “the majority of Teamster team drivers…indicated they preferred having more flexibility in the time that they can obtain restorative rest periods.” In recent years, the agency has worked to balance more flexibility for commercial drivers with road safety. Along with changing sleeper berth rules this past fall, the FMCSA instituted three other major changes to HOS that created a more flexible break rule, extended driving hours during adverse road conditions, and expanded the short-haul exception. 

FMCSA did not say when the latest sleeper berth proposal would be published in the Federal Register, but it did post a draft of the proposal on its website. 

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