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University of California Press
The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream / Edition 1

The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream / Edition 1

by Steve ViscelliSteve Viscelli
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Long-haul trucks have been described as sweatshops on wheels. The typical long-haul trucker works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, often for little more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t always this way. Trucking used to be one of the best working-class jobs in the United States.  

The Big Rig explains how this massive degradation in the quality of work has occurred, and how companies achieve a compliant and dedicated workforce despite it. Drawing on more than 100 in-depth interviews and years of extensive observation, including six months training and working as a long-haul trucker, Viscelli explains in detail how labor is recruited, trained, and used in the industry. He then shows how inexperienced workers are convinced to lease a truck and to work as independent contractors. He explains how deregulation and collective action by employers transformed trucking’s labor markets—once dominated by the largest and most powerful union in US history—into an important example of the costs of contemporary labor markets for workers and the general public.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520278127
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 495,611
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Steve Viscelli is a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. In addition to his academic research, he works with a range of public and private stakeholders to make the trucking industry safer, more efficient, and a better place to work. To learn more, please visit: 

Read an Excerpt

The Big Rig

Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream

By Steve Viscelli


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96271-2


The CDL Mill



Since the 1990s, millions of workers have been trained to drive a tractor-trailer and earned a commercial driver's license (CDL). Like me, many of them have attended large, private "CDL schools," often run by carriers themselves, that each train thousands of new drivers every year. Almost every Monday morning in the US a new cohort of thousands of workers eager for the chance to become a trucker attend their first day of CDL school. On one typical Monday morning before the Great Recession in a midsized midwestern city, I observed a group of trainees at a trucking school run by a company I'll call "Advanced." In all key respects, Advanced is the same as Leviathan, the company I worked for. On the first day, several dozen trainees reported as instructed at 6:00 a.m. to the lobby of the national chain motel where Advanced was putting them up. They had arrived the night before from a half-dozen or so neighboring states.

A sense of excitement filled the motel lobby as the would-be truckers mingled over free cups of coffee. All the informal conversations that ensued followed the same pattern: trainees introduced themselves and then took turns providing a personal account of why they were there. They were there because they wanted to become truck drivers. And it is hard to imagine any other purpose that could gather such a diverse cross-section of the American working class.

There was Matt, a white evangelical Christian in his late twenties from St. Louis, who had a four-year degree in philosophy and had been working for several years as a drug and alcohol counselor. He couldn't stand the stress and negative feelings he brought home from working with street addicts all day. Matt was engaged to be married soon and was hoping trucking would allow him to save up money to begin a family.

Denise, a black woman in her late thirties, was from a poor neighborhood in Kansas City. As a single mom, she had worked a steady string of low-paying retail jobs to support her three children, who all still lived at home. Her oldest daughter was now expecting a child of her own, and Denise needed a job that could meet the added costs to her household.

Dennis, a white twenty-four-year-old, had served in the army in Afghanistan as a helicopter mechanic. After an honorable discharge he looked for a job servicing civilian helicopters, but ended up working for a company that catered in-flight food for a major airline. Dennis's wages were barely above minimum wage, he had no health insurance, and he'd lost hope for a better career in aviation.

Mitch was a white male from Ohio in his late fifties. After thirty years of mounting tires at a Chrysler assembly plant he retired with a union pension and a bad back. A recent divorce had left him in need of a good regular income. He hoped he'd get that and make enough to buy the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he intended to ride in his second retirement.

Rick was a white truck mechanic, "looking at forty," from a small town on the interstate somewhere in Indiana. Married with a six-year-old son at home, he needed more income to pay the bills. After seventeen years, he got "tired of turning wrenches for nothing" and quit. He had seen enough of trucking to know that the time away from his family would be hard, but he needed the money, and he couldn't go back to his old job because his boss had already hired two young guys for "next to nothing" to replace him.

Jackie and Laura were a lesbian couple from northeast Indiana who planned to drive as a team. Jackie had been employed as a temp doing office jobs, and Laura had worked in food service at diners. They had a truck driver friend who let them ride along a couple of times, and they decided trucking would be a great way to make more money and see the country together.

Brian and Beth were newlywed evangelical Christians who had just completed four-year degrees in psychology. They wanted to drive as a team, live frugally, and save up enough money to pay for graduate school and put a down payment on a house.

Joe, a young single white male, had served as an army computer specialist in Afghanistan. He had been working as a forklift operator in a Kraft Foods warehouse for eight dollars an hour. And the recruits just kept coming in: Larry was a black man in his fifties from Detroit who had worked a laundry list of bad jobs. Tyler was a white man in his forties who left his job as a plumber because his benefits "went to shit." Bob was nonunion factory worker looking for better pay and job security. John and Mike both worked at Home Depot and weren't happy with their annual twenty-five-cent per hour raises. Bill was a white twentysomething who had worked on a highway maintenance crew in rural Indiana. Shane was a black male in his thirties from Chicago who had worked a series of low-end retail jobs.

Alone among the group in having ever been behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer was Tim, a white male in his thirties, who had been driving locally, apparently without a commercial drivers license. Any discussion with Tim quickly turned to how much money he thought he could make as an over-the-road driver and then to the virtues of his lifelong home of Youngstown, Ohio, and the prospects of the Cleveland Browns in the upcoming season.

All the other trainees had similar stories of financial need and nontrucking jobs that were, in one way or another, bad. With the noticeable absence of Latinos, the group was diverse in terms of race and gender and had a very wide range of work and educational experience. All had steady work histories, though a few had been suffering from unemployment recently. They were all there because they believed trucking was the best job opportunity available to them in terms of pay and benefits. And they were hopeful about it, extremely so. But what most of them did not yet understand is that they were not really there for job training. Advanced had not hired them, it had only offered them a spot in truck driving school. And Advanced wouldn't hire many of them — these workers were basically there for an extended job interview that the company was charging them hundreds of dollars per day to attend. This is the way that most workers become truckers today, but it wasn't always that way.


Prior to regulation, many over-the-road drivers were part-time or former farmers looking for a way to get their produce to urban markets cheaply, or to supplement or replace farm income. During the regulatory period, farmers and rural workers continued to supply a significant portion of the industry's workforce. Many nonfarming truckers learned to drive as part of another job, from family members or through military training, but most truckers ultimately entered the industry through on-the-job training programs in union-controlled companies.

Most importantly, trucking was for most a lifetime career. This was especially true for Teamsters members, who enjoyed high wages, good working conditions and job security. There were few, if any, jobs that drew such workers away from the trucking industry, and this resulted in little need for companies to recruit and train new labor. When such labor was needed, hiring was heavily influenced by the Teamsters, and workers were likely to be trained by union members on the job. For nonunion operators, experience with heavy equipment and trucks on farms or through a family member remained a primary means for learning to drive a truck.

Deregulation completely disrupted these traditional sources of labor and the ways labor was trained. In the decade or so after deregulation, the rapidly growing TL segment employed the multitude of drivers displaced by bankruptcies and firm restructuring. But as competition forced firms to continually lower wages and degrade working conditions, this more experienced labor left for better jobs with less-than-truckload, private, or niche firms, or exited the industry altogether.

As this preexisting highly trained labor force dried up, companies were forced to develop a number of strategies to recruit and retain drivers. These strategies have all depended upon bringing new people into the industry who increasingly have no experience at all driving a truck.

Though truck drivers are not considered skilled labor by government record keepers, being a safe and efficient driver requires numerous skills. Achieving basic competence in these skills takes several months, mastering them takes years. As TL companies began to suck huge numbers of inexperienced drivers into the industry, safety became an increasing concern. Within a few years of deregulation, the federal government began reregulating the trucking industry to ensure safety under the auspices of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). This agency is tasked with setting the key work rules for truckers, as will be discussed in the next chapter, but the first major change instituted was to require all tractor-trailer drivers to have a CDL. The need to license new drivers and provide initial training rapidly spurred the development of truck driving schools.

By the mid-1980s, many carriers were increasingly dependent upon truck driving schools to recruit and train labor. Schools, even those not run by carriers themselves, quickly began tailoring training to carriers' interests. In 1986, the Professional Truck Driver Institute was formed by carriers to set standards and began certifying schools shortly thereafter. By the late 1990s, one of the founders of this organization estimated there were around fifteen hundred CDL schools in the US. By this time many large firms were running their own training schools as well.

Thus, by the beginning of the 1990s there were plenty of opportunities for potential drivers to learn the "rules of the road." But before truck driving schools or carriers can train workers, the industry needs to convince them that trucking is a good job.


Recruiting new workers is a massive undertaking that can cost large firms tens of millions of dollars annually. For instance, companies like Schneider National, a leading TL firm similar to Leviathan with about fourteen thousand trucks, decline many applicants based on motor vehicle records, criminal history, or spotty work histories. In 2004, Schneider reported fielding 320,000 inquiries about jobs and sending out 112,000 applications. It got about two-thirds (74,200) of these applications back, and interviewed about half (37,700) of those workers. Just twenty-seven thousand passed Schneider's interviews. Only 9,959, less than three percent, of those who inquired that year were ultimately hired.

In other words, for each one of the almost ten thousand drivers it hired in 2004, Schneider needed to generate initial interest in the job from thirty-two workers and get eleven of those to actually apply. That's hard to do when you're offering a job that most of these workers wouldn't want if they actually knew what it was like.

The False Promise of Big Money

Most workers who try their hand at a career in truck driving are actually taking a pretty big gamble. Trucking's not a job you apply for one day and start earning money the next. It costs thousands of dollars to earn a CDL and takes several months before you can actually start driving on your own. So new truckers generally consider the pros and cons of truck driving as a career seriously for at least several months before they enter the industry. But many of these workers have little sense of what trucking will really mean for themselves and their families. Partly this is simply because it is difficult for workers to know what truck driving is actually like. But the industry's success at recruiting large numbers of people despite the risks for workers is also the result of would-be truckers' misconceptions about the job. These misconceptions are directly promoted by carriers, for-profit CDL schools, and recruiting firms and, in some instances, indirectly endorsed by publicly supported CDL schools and government agencies, such as state unemployment offices.

While some of the truckers and trucking recruits that I spoke with over the course of my research told me that they went into trucking because they believed they would have greater autonomy at work, or job security as truckers, virtually all new truckers share one belief about the job that ultimately drew them to the industry: that they will earn more money trucking than in any other available job. Some companies, including Leviathan and Schneider, provide a relatively realistic portrait of what kind of pay they offer, but many companies mislead workers about the income they can expect starting out, and what they can expect once they have some experience. And virtually no one tells would-be truckers what the job requires in terms of hours worked and time away from home.

To get a sense of how trucking was portrayed by carriers, I looked at recruitment magazines distributed at truck driving schools, highway rest areas, truck stops and other locations (e.g. major retailer stores such as Wal-Mart). These publications are gazette size and may be a hundred or more pages long. Most feature short articles on trucking, but the bulk of the content is job ads. These ads frame trucking jobs in diverse ways and typically make a range of claims about everything from income to the quality of carriers' trucks. Most ads use a variety of rhetorical approaches to focus on "values" and portray carriers as everything from a family to a travel agent.

To get a sense of how accurately companies represented the key thing that draws workers to the job — income — I coded income claims in jobs ads geared toward the recruitment of new or inexperienced drivers from twenty issues of four common publications published from the fall of 2004 through the fall of 2008. Most of these ads suggested that truck driving provides high incomes, but did not provide specific numbers beyond pay rates per mile. Every couple of pages, however, I found ads with claims about annual income.

Ads for a dozen different TL companies presented "average" or possible incomes specifically for drivers in their first or second years. These ranged from a low of $36,000–39,000 for a "student driver" to $60,000 for a "first year driver." The average of the figures advertised for inexperienced drivers was almost $48,500. These same companies claimed that their "average" driver earned even more, with an average advertised salary of about $57,000. Suggested salaries of "top" drivers averaged roughly $71,500.

Given that the median wage-earner in the US earned around $26,500 in 2006, it is easy to understand why workers in service and blue collar jobs would find such salaries attractive. Unfortunately, these numbers are gross misrepresentations of what truckers actually earn. I recorded annual incomes for thirty-one of the company drivers (out of thirty-nine) that I interviewed who had worked the full previous year and did not report unemployment. Those with less than two years experience earned an average of $30,200. That is 38 percent less than the pay advertised for such drivers. Drivers with two to nine years experience reported an average income of $43,300, about 25 percent less than advertised for "average drivers." Drivers with ten or more years of experience reported an average income of $51,200, almost 30 percent less than what was advertised for "top" drivers.

The incomes my drivers reported are consistent with other sources, but this doesn't prevent the industry from advertising wildly inflated salaries. It is not just a handful of unscrupulous firms that mislead would-be truckers. Trucking schools, and even the industry's leading trade association, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), make claims such as the following: "Long-haul truck drivers with two or more years of experience usually earn at least $50-$60,000/year." The ATA also claims, "For more specialized driving, such as being part of a sleeper team, a driver can make $100,000 per year."


Excerpted from The Big Rig by Steve Viscelli. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Where Did All These Bad Jobs Come From? 1

1 The CDL Mill: Training" the Professional Steering-Wheel Holder 28

2 Cheap Freight, Cheap Drivers: Work as a Long-Haul Trucker 58

3 The Big Rig: Running the Contractor Confidence Game 105

4 Working for the Truck: The Harsh Reality of Contracting 140

5 Someone to Turn To: Managing Contractors from an Arm's Length Away 168

6 "No More Jimmy Hoffas": Desperate Drivers and Divided Labor 190

Appendix A Data and Methods 209

Notes 233

Glossary 245

Bibliography 247

Index 257

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