Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Steve Viscelli's "The Big Rig"

Steve Viscelli is currently a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Swarthmore College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book includes the following paragraphs:
Leviathan and companies like it recruit and train workers completely unfamiliar with the trucking industry. As a result, these workers don’t know any other way to truck. When difficulties arise and their company does not bend, these drivers are likely to see problems as inherent in their company, or in trucking more generally, and not as being about the kind of freight they haul, the customers they service, or the organization of the labor process in that segment of the industry. In part this is simply because these inexperienced workers have no experience with any alternative, and the company does not present itself as a particular kind of trucking company.

The implicit and explicit messages from companies like Leviathan are that they are the result of market forces freed by deregulation, they are the leaders of the industry, the cutting edge, the future. If you are entering the trucking industry and want to have a successful career, they are your future. If there are alternatives, they are not long for this world. You need to be flexible, because this is the way trucking is.
This section focuses on how long-haul truck drivers are trained. It took me years to trace the full implications of the rather simple idea of this section– that the first company a trucker drives for determines much of how he sees the industry. The goal of my book is to explain the remarkable transformation of the trucking industry over the past four decades. Once dominated by well-paid union jobs, trucking is now populated by hundreds of thousands of independent contractors with terrible pay and working conditions. This transition relied on trucking companies’ ability to shape how employees understand their work, the industry, and their role within it.

The book is based on a ton of interviews, but also on some pretty intense fieldwork including 6 months I spent training and then working as a long-haul trucker. I experienced entrance into the industry the way most people do, through a training program run by a major trucking carrier. That carrier taught me what trucking was and how I should do it. And at first, that was the only framework I had for understanding the industry. Then I started the interview phase of my research and heard the perspectives of more than 100 other truckers, some were rookies like me, but many were far more experienced. Those interviews put my experience into a whole different light.

Experienced drivers had a very different (much more critical) take on the job I had done. Being employees’ introduction to the industry allows companies to shape the expectations of new workers and consequently get them to accept a combination of low pay and bad working conditions (e.g. being away from come for weeks at a time and living out of truck) that experienced drivers would never accept.  - in my case working almost 14 hours per day for 12 or 19 days at a time. Companies indoctrinate new workers, presenting their job conditions as the inevitable outcome of natural market forces. The pseudonym for my own employer, Leviathan, was intended to capture this notion. Later I came to realize that this kind of conceptual leadership – which I viewed through Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony - was a critical part of a coordinated set of labor strategies that companies have developed since the trucking industry was deregulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, those strategies end by convincing many of workers to take on the risk and cost of leasing a truck and becoming an “owner-operator” in pursuit of the American Dream.

In later chapters, I discuss how employers, trucking media and consultants have convinced countless truckers to lease a truck and become an independent contractor by completely reworking what it means to be self-employed, tailoring it to the advantage of firms and turning long-haul trucks into rolling sweatshops. All of this starts with the training process discussed on page 99.
Visit Steve Viscelli's website.

--Marshal Zeringue