Well, you don’t always need many interviews to finish off a chapter.
Sometimes you just need one.
A long one.
Frank Decker is your guy for that sort of thing.
Frank Decker (Interstate Truckdriver)
So this time Terkel has it as “truckdriver” but my web browser disagrees this is a word. It’s a nice(?) middle ground from last time where cabdriver is totally a thing but “busdriver” isn’t and Terkel didn’t have it that way anyways. In other news, I’ve talked about the plight of truckers before (here) and I think that may be a good companion piece once you’re finished.
Decker has been a driver for the past 17 years of his life. Recently there’s been a wildcat strike and he’s been helping lead the charge. He helps manage an organization of workers called Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers.
It’s not as bad as it sounds!
Seriously though, Decker has taken a tremendous task with fighting not only the steel corporations but, perhaps unsurprisingly to some readers of this blog, the Teamsters Union. In fact, as we go along, Decker is going to be more inclined to say negative things about the Teamsters than the giant steel corporations. But then we’ll also find out from Decker that these two seemingly different organizations have a lot of overlap between them.
To start with, what were some of the conditions before the strikes?
We’d wait as high as twelve, fifteen hours to get loaded. The trucking companies didn’t charge the corporations for any waiting time, demurrage—like they did on the railroad cars.
We get a flat percentage no matter how much work we put in. It didn’t cost the trucking company anything to have us wait out there, so they didn’t charge the steel outfits anything. … The longest I’ve ever waited was twenty-five hours. (p. 206)
Imagine it, waiting outside or around a cold factory for over a day (without compensation!) just so you can get on ahead with your job. A job that Decker and I’m sure others had some mixed opinions about from time to time. The cold factory part of this was at least fixed over the years but the lack of compensation wasn’t and this was a big part of the strikes.
The strikes gave the corporation the first four hours free and every hour after that they met in the middle with the association. Instead of the originally proposed $13.70, they get around $10 an hour after those first four free ones. Though on top of that there’s another period of four hours when you’re on the point of delivery.
Surely not an ideal set up but something of an improvement nonetheless.
What are the hours like?
If I were to go in the mill after supper, I’d expect to come out maybe midnight, two-o’clock in the morning.
So on top of tough conditions you’ve also got some pretty tough hours. More or less, the truckers must work a 16 hour job just to get paid fro their day. That’s 8 free hours they’re giving to the steel corporations on top of often having to repair the trucks and lease them to the steel corporations.
One of the few conditions that Decker does praise is the rise of freeways in recent years (remember, these interviews take place in the early 70s) and how that’s made things “automated” or at least by comparison in terms of speed.
Something I found interesting on the next page was Decker’s description of his usual routine:
My routine would be to drop two days like this and not come home. Halfway back from Milwaukee take a nap in the cab at a truck stop. You use the washroom, the facilities, you call your dispatcher in Gary, and pick up another load. Went home for a day of sleep, wash up, get rejuvenated, live like a human being for a day, come back to the mill after supper, and be off again. (p. 208)
That “live like a human for a day” part particularly caught my eye. For Decker and I’m sure many other truckers, the way they live on the road seems unnatural. Being awake most of the day, having sudden naps here and there, going to faraway places and then coming back. Often times you might be really close to home or something approximating it but not able to actually go back. Or if you are it can feel very transitional and unreal.
It seems to me that there’s this kind of spectral feeling to having two jobs or having just one trucker job. To be able to go “home” is a luxury and never something you can intimately know. Home isn’t a concrete place you can play, see friends or (glob forbid) be idle. It’s a resting place, a place to be “rejuvenated” and feel like you’re human for a day.
But once that day is over, it’s back to being a machine.
And even if you have actual days off…
On weekends, if you’re lucky enough to be home, you’re greasing the truck and repairing it. It’s like a seven-day week. There’s nobody else to do the work.
Years ago, the rate of truck repair was five dollars an hour. Today it’s eleven, twelve dollars an hour. You do ninety percent of the work yourself, small repairs and adjustments. (p. 208)
There’s no rest for the weary, for the wicked and for…just about anyone, really. And there’s especially no rest for workers who have to be the pseudo-owners of the vehicles they use all of the time. Perhaps one of the biggest cons of the trucking profession is the fact that, in many cases, the truckers don’t even own the trucks themselves.
So in addition to the lease payments you have to make, you also have to pay (out of pocket) for repairs to the vehicle. And if you don’t then that’s just going to mean the company may charge you, you could lose days off your next week when you’re on shift and so on. The consequences are like a rigged game of dominoes and the corporations are the ones who have got their fingers on the proverbial trigger at all times.
As with the other driving jobs we’ve seen, there are some major health risks:
There’s a lot of stomach trouble in this business, tension. Fellas that can’t eat anything. … There’s a lot of hemorrhoid problems. And there’s a lot of left shoulder bursitis because of the window being open. And there’s loss of hearing because of the roar of the engine. (p. 209)
There’s seemingly no end to the potential risks you have to face with jobs that involve driving. If you think people would be rationally nervous about driving a cab in Chicago, a bus…just about anywhere, then an 18 wheeler on the freeways in or around Chicago have got to be terrifying. Or, maybe not terrifying, but ultimately stressful and highly damaging.
To deal with some of these issues Decker mentions that some take Benzedrine in order to stay awake. But then they end up getting addicted to the pills, buying them by the thousands so they can supposedly save money. It’s no wonder truckers can look like such hardened people at times, they have a job I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
And the bastard of it all is that the US depends heavily on the trucking industry. We rely on it for getting goods and materials to warehouses so they can be processed and grinded into whatever we need. Whether you like them or not, multinational corporations such as Amazon and Walmart have made trucking even more important to the US.
But despite the seemingly obvious level of import that these folks have for the US economy, the corporations in charge of the trucks can still manage to heavily abuse them. For all of the flack the truckers might get, the repairs they have to pay out of pocket for and all of the health problems they can’t pay for, they’re simply not appreciated enough.
Even thinking about the culture of truck drivers and especially in movies.
Particularly horror movies but moves in general always seem to treat truck drivers as unsophisticated swine. Most are severely backwards for whatever reason but Decker sees something different from that picture:
It’s a strange thing about truckers, they’re very conservative. They come from a rural background or think of themselves as businessmen. But underneath the veneer they’re really very democratic and softhearted and liberal. But they don’t realize it. You tell ’em they’re liberal and you’re liable to get your head knocked off.
But when you start talking about things, the war, kids, when you really get down to it, they’re for everything that’s liberal. But they want a conservative label on it. It’s a strange paradox. (p. 210)
Before we get into the strike, I did want to quickly mention this (for me) funny passage:
At the bottom of the ladder there’s the hooker on your truck. (p. 211)
At first I was aghast that Decker was referring to his co-workers as “hookers” in order to demean them but eventually I realized that he literally meant people who hook hooks on your truck…
“Ninety percent of the fellas were Teamster Union members, but you’d never know it. Outside of the dues money they take out of your check, they did absolutely nothing. They did less than nothing.
We know that a telephone calls by high Teamster officials to steel mill officials could have changed our picture completely. If they would call up and say, “Look, you’re abusing our people and if you don’t straighten it out we’re gonna do something about it.’
But they’re establishment. They’re interlocked with the steel mills and the trucking companies. They don’t even know who their members are the trucking companies. They don’t even know who their members are.
A teamster official was maybe a truckdriver twenty-five or thirty years ago. Fought the good fight, built the union, got got high on the hog. So many years have passed that he doesn’r even know what a truck looks like any more. He now golfs with his contemporaries from the trucking companies.
There’s a bit more to it than just that in the quote but you get the idea. The perception that unionists from big-time unions used to be actually organizing for the workers benefit isn’t wrong. Back in the 20s and 30s, unionists were often grassroots movements and built from the bottom up. As they picked up speed and power over the years they were able to get concessions from both governments and corporations alike.
However the anti-authoritarian strain in unions was also sold out. The concessions were mostly made from laws and new corporate policies that allowed significant management control over striking. And while some more worker rights were won that were (and are) important, were often diluted by the union bosses own interest in power.
Unions like the Industrial Workers of the World and others who favored less authoritarian organizing around their unions were pushed to the side. In their place unions like AFL-CIO gained prominence and power as they were able to work through the normal channels of change that they were supposedly also in conflict with.
So yes, there’s a lot of labor organizing and union history behind this, but basically Decker is correct.
There’s some interesting bits about how the cops treat truckers but I don’t wanna quote everything from this interview. And for the sake of space and time, I’d like to just focus on the strike for the most part from here on out.
Now as we approach ’67 I’ve about had it. I’m trucking seventeen years. There’s nothing left to do. I never dreamt that our hopes of getting together some day was gonna come true. It was just a dream. I’ll finish out the year, sell off my truck and trailer, and I’m gonna build a garage up the Wisconsin-Illinois state line.
But I met an old-timer I’d seen around for years. … He said to me, “Did you hear about the rumble going on down in Gary?” He showed me this one-page pamphlet: “If you’re fed up with the Teamsters Union selling you out and all of the sweetheart contracts and the years of abuses, go in front of the your union hall Monday morning at ten o’clock. We’re gonna have a protest.”‘ (p. 214)
I can’t say I’ve read a lot of pamphlets explicitly calling for a protest in my life, but damn, if I saw one like that, I’d be pretty fired up and want to know what was going on. Especially if that sort of protest effected me in some way.
The protest grew and eventually…
…we had five hundred, six hundred guys—most of ’em from out of town. Parked their trucks all over town. We hung on them grates. Sometimes we’d get down to two, three guys and we thought it was all over. But there’s a new carload of guys come in from Iowa or from Detroit or from Fremont, Ohio, or something.
Along the way they had people ranging from truckers who attempted to hit them and truckers who were happy to joint them. One of the bigger signs of solidarity was from truckers who they’d recognize from truck stops, diners and other chance meetings and recognize one another from the truck they drove.
Eventually Teamsters and the steel mill worked together to try to get them to work. They used the full power of the state on the wildcat strikers. They put injunctions on the organizers and locked them up as well as trying to get muscle to scare them out of organizing for any longer. The strike held up against all of that, despite expectations to the contrary.
That expectation for that came from the fact that many truckers were almost broke even with the job. As Decker says, many were a paycheck or two away from being in the poor house. Eventually Decker and company (no pun intended) had to get some money by asking tire dealers and other organizations that could benefit from their strike.
Eventually FASH was formed and a nationwide strike was launched:
We told [a representative from the Teamsters] we want the International to give us charters for steel locals. We want to have elections and we want to elect our own people. we want autonomy. And then we told him, ‘We want you and your crooked pals to stay ten miles away from our halls.’
He said he’d take the message back, and that’s where it stands now. (p. 216)
When you strike and you want autonomy above all else, you can ask for some beautiful things. And even when you’re at a standstill it occurs to me that even that can be a relatively glorious place to be.
Well, relative to working within hierarchical unions like the Teamsters or corporate procedures.
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