Trouble in Trucking Country: Truck Drivers and Their Histories

Endorsed by the Business History Conference and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Labor and Working-Class; LGBTQ History and Queer Studies


The nearly two million workers who drive heavy tractor trailers in America occupy a pivotal position in today’s economy, where the ubiquitous supply-chain systems depend upon the ceaseless movement of goods across America’s highways. But while corporate earnings have steadily risen, the wages for long-haul drivers, when corrected for inflation have fallen for the last four decades. In that same time period, the Teamsters Union was pushed out of the deregulated long haul trucking industry and labor conditions worsened, with drivers today often working 60 to 80 hours a week. Drivers who are lured into becoming independent contractors often find themselves making less than minimum wage, and some are even caught up in a modern form of debt peonage. These abysmal conditions have pushed more and more drivers out of the industry; estimates put the annual turnover rate for truck drivers at above 95 percent. Instead of improving work conditions to reduce this turnover, the industry’s response has been to push the government to enlarge the labor pool, by amending current restrictions to allow 18-21 year olds to drive interstate freight trucks. The long term solution, many observers seem to agree, is automation, but although self-driving trucks are in development, their actual deployment onto the nation’s highways is many years, if not decades in the future.

In the meantime, truck drivers are a prominent and poignant example of a larger pattern of inequality that has marked economic growth in the U.S. for the last three decades. Workers in general have seen their share of corporate profits fall as declining union strength and precarious employment patterns have allowed employers to squeeze wages and erode working conditions.

Historians such as David Witwer have noted the central role that truck drivers have played in twentieth century history, where their strategic power helped make the Teamsters Union by the 1950s both the largest and the most controversial labor organization in the United States. Shane Hamilton traced the part that truck drivers played in key shifts in the post-World War II economy, especially the agribusiness sector. More recently, Michael Belzer and Steven Viscelli have described the occupation’s stark decline since the federal government deregulated interstate trucking.

The panelists in this session offer important new perspectives on the history of truck drivers. David Witwer explores the way in which the controversial Teamster Union president, James R. Hoffa, prefigured Donald Trump, and how the continued loyalty of Hoffa’s truck driving constituents led many observers to raise questions about the evolution of the working-class. Anne Balay draws on her own experience as a long haul truck driver, and the oral histories she accumulated among gay and transgender drivers, to describe their distinctive perspective on the declining conditions in this occupation. But she also presents their efforts to resist that workplace oppression. Finally, Steve Viscelli uses the history of how mid-twentieth century truckers embraced automation to offer potential policy suggestions for the oncoming new wave of automation poised to transform the occupation again.

Papers Presented

Black Smoke Matters

Truckers face a labor crisis, and they are scared and angry. This paper explores the history of this turning point and the role that queer truckers play in understanding and responding to it. I believe, based on my experience driving a semi and on oral histories I conducted of sixty-six drivers as research for my book Semi Queer, that truckers are increasingly hyperregulated and micromanaged because their jobs—the concrete tasks they do and see every day—teach them what the USA is and how it works, and our culture is very uncomfortable with working-class people (especially queer, trans, or black workers) having access to these secrets. Most Americans muddle along ignorant of where our food and other consumer goods originate and how they are produced. Further, living in our “bubbles,” we each do not witness the devastating poverty overtaking rural America and its accompanying racial and geographic divides. Truckers see it all. Trucking’s constant motion and the isolation of its workers are some of the job’s draw for queer and trans truckers. Once they start driving truck, they learn enough about how the world works that they need to be silenced, using surveillance, termination, or overwork. Companies can recruit new workers who are more vulnerable and have less training in resistance. The industry is committed to disciplining the kind of drivers who can combine their skills and tactics as sexual and racial minorities with the experience and education garnered while trucking. These drivers are leading a response that they call Black Smoke Matters.

Presented By
Anne Balay, Independent Scholar

The Robots Are Coming! Again!

Truckers have been widely suggested as some of the workers most at risk of losing their jobs in the coming wave of automation of work. Indeed, truckers have come to symbolize a broader anxiety about the future of work and are a case study of the challenges of mitigating the negative effects of job loss, disruption, and alienation that may follow automation. This current wave of automation and concomitant anxiety is not the first in trucking. This paper looks back to the 1950s and 1960s, the first time the robots came, and how truckers, most led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, responded to labor-saving technology. This historical perspective provides critical lessons to inform today’s debates about automation. Contrary to common assumptions in today’s debates, truckers did not take a “luddite” approach to new technology, fighting to retard technological development to save their jobs. Workers frequently supported labor-saving technologies, but they did so because they believed that they could influence the policies that would ensure they shared in the benefits of those technologies and that government could effectively address negative impacts. Today, in an age of growing inequality and precariousness, and in the absence of a robust voice for labor, it should not surprise us that automation in trucking is playing out much differently. The paper concludes by suggesting policy prescriptions that follow from this historical case.

Presented By
Steve Viscelli, University of Pennsylvania

Searching for Jimmy Hoffa: Truckers and the Precursor to the Trump Phenomenon

Decades before Donald Trump appeared on the public stage, the devotion of truck-driving Teamsters to James R. Hoffa offered a precursor to the current political landscape. Despite a series of high profile investigations, criminal indictments, and prosecutions that included many of his Hoffa’s closest associates, his working-class supporters remained loyal to him, shrugging aside the mounting evidence of his corruption or blandly discounting the significance of any corrupt acts in which he might have engaged. For his part, Hoffa claimed the investigations amounted to nothing more than persecution by his elitist, liberal opponents, supported by a corrupt news media. At rallies, he mocked and denounced these opponents, to the delight of his supporters. His taunting defiance kept him in the spotlight, where front-page news articles profiled his willingness to defy the political conventions of the day. Liberal commentators responded to Hoffa’s popularity by raising questions about the values of the working class and about its changing position in American society. In this earlier era, those questions tended to focus on one particular segment of the working-class: truck drivers, a group with whom Hoffa was firmly identified. This paper will explore the nature of that link by analyzing the media accounts of the Hoffa phenomenon, as well as the recurring fictionalized depictions of it in TV and film. While Hoffa’s biographers have taken the truckers’ loyalty as a given, this paper will explore how media reports framed it and linked it to larger conclusions about the American working class.

Presented By
David Witwer, Penn State Harrisburg

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

Presenter: Anne Balay, Independent Scholar
Anne Balay graduated with a PhD from the University of Chicago, after which she promptly became a car mechanic. Though in subsequent years she returned to academia as a professor both at the University of Illinois and Indiana University Northwest, she never lost her interest in blue collar work environments. Dr. Balay moved to Gary, Indiana to teach, and was immediately interested in the steel industry of the region. Her coworker and mentor, Jimbo Lane, suggested that she would be perfectly suited to meeting with and writing about the LGBT workers within the mill community, and Steel Closets was born. After its publication in 2014, Steel Closets won awards from the National Women’s Studies Association, the American Studies Association, and Lambda Literary. It has been widely reviewed and referenced.

Balay attended commercial truck driving school in 2015, got her CDL, and briefly drove over the road. Oral histories of truck drivers she did in 2015/16 have led to her new book Semi Queer, published in 2018. Though big rigs are everywhere and enormous, people manage to not see them, and know very little about the working conditions, the frustrations, and the pleasures of the people who drive them. Further, scholars are only just beginning to tell the story of queer people at work, and the experience of blue-collar queers gets even less exposure. Yet a large proportion of queer folks work in these job sectors, and understanding their stories has the potential to transform how we understand queer lives and desires in the 21st century. Finally, the working class is not white, or straight. I seek to understand both who is actually doing this work, and how and why the media and public perception overlooks that in order to reinscribe the myth of working-class whiteness. Semi Queer pools truckers’ narratives together, situating them within historical and theoretical conversations about work, queerness, and precarity.

Balay is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College.

Presenter: Steve Viscelli, University of Pennsylvania
Steve Viscelli is a Robert and Penny Fox Family Pavilion Scholar, Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies work, labor markets and public policy related to freight transportation, automation and energy. His first book, The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream (UC Press, 2016), examines how long-haul trucking went from being one of the best to one of the toughest blue-collar jobs in the US after the industry was deregulated. Steve is currently working on two interrelated research projects. The first is a book project that explores the policy and politics of self-driving trucks and their potential impacts on labor and the environment (first report available at: The second looks at the impacts of ecommerce and technology on last-mile freight delivery and related policy to ensure job quality in goods movement. In addition to his academic research, Steve works with a wide variety of public and private stakeholders to solve real-world problems in freight transportation.

Presenter: David Witwer, Penn State Harrisburg
David Witwer graduated from Brown University in 1994 with a PhD in American History. He is a Professor of History and American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. His articles have appeared in publications such as the Journal of American History, the Journal of Women’s History, Journalism History, Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas and Trends in Organized Crime. His book, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union (2003) was named one of Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Books. Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (2009), won Labor History’s Best Book Prize for 2009. With Catherine Rios, he has just completed a book entitled, Murder in the Garment District: The Grip of Organized Crime and the Decline of Organized Labor, schedule to be published this fall by The New Press. His current work-in-progress is tentatively titled, Searching for Jimmy Hoffa: The Enduring Mystery and Towering Legacy of America’s Most Notorious Labor Leader.