The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli

As a child growing up in the 1960's, I thought of Jimmy Hoffa as an evil mafioso who stole from trucking companies and Teamster members alike. While that characterization contains some truth, one of the contributions of Steve Viscelli's history is to bring to light Hoffa's real contributions to the trucking industry, culminating with the National Master Freight Agreement in 1964. Viscelli explains how the hub-and-spoke system mandated by the Agreement resulted in many logistical inefficiencies, but also resulted in greater industry stability, and guaranteed a living wage to truck drivers. The myth of the long-haul truck driver as a 'king of the road' with great independence was born at that time, when it held some truth. The main point of Viscelli's sometimes dry acount is to explain how far away from independence today's weakened truck drivers have fallen, and how the industry came to be in the situation that we now find it. Industry publications like the always informative Transport Topics expend considerable ink on the state of the national truck driver shortage, but they never explain why the shortage exists.

Viscelli is a sociologist rather than an investigative reporter or technology historian, so the text focuses mostly on Viscelli's 6-month stint as a commercial over-the-road driver and findings from interviews with drivers at truck stops. Viscelli convincingly reveals the swindle to which "independent owner-operators" of trucks have fallen prey, as "debt peonage" is a more realistic description of their state. His account of the collusion between state regulators, commercial drivers schools and trucking companies is disturbing to read. Far from 'kings of the road', today's long-haul drivers are frequently underpaid, overworked and in continual financial peril. While no one would wish for Hoffa's return, his tenure, like that of Saddam Hussein, perhaps had some merits.

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