It was a punishing job but the only work I could find one summer, as an emergency tire repairman for 18 wheelers. I sat in a pick-up at a truck stop near the Illinois and Indiana border, waiting for distress calls from drivers of semi-tractor trailers passing through our region.
When a trucker needed help, I’d speed onto the entrance ramp of I-94 and drive until I spied the blinking lights of a big rig stalled on the side of the road.
Prying a giant wheel off an axle to extract and patch the inner tube was dirty and dangerous. Diesel engines are kept running continuously, so I’d have to crawl underneath the rumbling behemoth, sliding on my backside over hot gravel, to jack up a trailer that can weigh 40 tons.
It was a temporary gig with zero benefits that paid minimum wage, which in 1975 was around $2 an hour. So there wasn’t a single day on the job that I did not wish I were in the shoes, instead, of the truckers I worked for or met at the truck stop.
Like Claude. No one was cooler than Claude, nattily dressed in a cowboy hat, denim jacket, black jeans, a silver wallet chain and leather boots adorned with buckles and studs.
He liked his cologne, his coffee and all the waitresses at the truck stop, whom he over-tipped when he picked up the check, which he did more than once when we shared a booth.
Claude usually ordered chicken fried steak and Texas toast, which he’d wash down with black coffee, while telling his latest story about what he’d seen or whom he’d met out on the road.
Many stories were about fellow truckers, like his pal Turk who installed a kitchen in his over-sized cab and once baked a meatloaf while drive through the mountains of Tennessee.
Or there was the 100-degree day in Indiana, when Claude himself pulled over to help a motorist. Claude directed the man’s wife and six kids to crowd into his air-conditioned truck cab while the two men replenished the car’s radiator from Claude’s five gallon jerrican.
Though Claude did not yet own his own rig, he planned to do so soon with savings he was able to salt away each week from an annual salary which he bragged was a “poker pot shy” of $35,000.
But I quit the tire job in August to teach in Chicago, and I never saw Claude again, nor learned whether he fulfilled his dream.
Today, truckers like Claude are extinct, according to a story in the New York Times that reads more like an obituary than a report ( “Alone on the Open Road: Truckers Feel Like Throwaway People.” May 22, 2017).
Adjusting for inflation, for a truck driver in 2017 to earn the equivalent of Claude’s $35,000 salary, he’d need to be paid $163,000. Yet today’s median average salary is only $40,000, according to the Bureau of Labor. And the chief reason for that precipitous reduction is the decline of labor unions.
War was declared against unions on Aug. 5, 1981, by President Ronald Reagan when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers. It was more than a symbolic act, as he proceeded to replace three of the five members of the National Labor Relations Board with proponents of management.
According to Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, the NLRB consequently went from an agency that promoted workers’ rights, to one that crushed them, giving employers a free pass to fire workers who attempted to unionize, to replace full timers with temps ineligible for benefits, and to seek cheap, non-union laborers overseas.
Working men and women never recovered. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership has declined 50 percent since they first started keeping track in 1983, during which time the net worth of the average U.S. household has declined by 14 percent.
And the poster boy for the tragedy is the American trucker.
In my tire-changing days in the 1970’s, Claude, along with nearly half of all other truckers, belonged to unions that fought for good wages and benefits, which even non-members enjoyed. But today, only 13 percent of truckers are protected by unions — a major factor in the plunge in wages.
American truckers as strong, solitary, well-heeled, freedom-loving cowboys, an ethos celebrated in song by bands like Alabama, have been replaced by people like Ayisha Gomez, 39, a California truck driver interviewed for the Times article: a single mom, struggling with “low-paying, grinding, unhealthy work” and facing a mountain of debt.
Sadly, no relief is in sight. President Donald Trump has proposed cuts to the Labor Department and to job training programs. Like Reagan, he is in the process of stacking the NLRB with appointees expected to reverse President Barack Obama’s pro-labor initiatives, including a rule that would have made it easier for workers at companies of all sizes to form and join unions.
Ayisha and other truckers deserve the same shot at the American dream that my idol Claude had in 1975. And all Americans deserve the basic human right to have a say in the conditions under which they toil every day. Which is why we should all dedicate ourselves this Labor Day to resisting the efforts of the man who had pledged to stick up for the American worker, but is instead colluding with big business to stick it to them.
Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, David McGrath is a past member of the United Retail Workers Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the Illinois Education Association. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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