One of the points I make in Out of Sight is that the impact of industrial production is shouldered almost entirely by workers because when consumers get exposed to pesticides, for example, they are angry and empowered to demand changes. This is one reason why Cesar Chavez understood that motivating white consumers was more effective in creating the change he wanted than organizing the farmworkers themselves (which had its own problems). One way this has had a real effect was that the agricultural industry developed new pesticides that are intense but dissipate quickly. These nonpersistent chemicals thus intensely affect workers, but who cares about them, so long as my strawberries and apples are fine in the store. Once it doesn’t affect us, the burdens of pesticides are out of sight again.
This type of situation is pretty common throughout America, with companies far more concerned about angry consumers than their own workers. But there’s one area where there’s a surprising lack of consumer activism over the worker safety issues that can then affect them. And that’s the trucking industry. The pressure on truckers means tired drivers which mean crashes and death that can affect any of us any time we drive, as Tracy Morgan found out last year. I’m surprised that drivers–AAA to start with but other organizations as well–haven’t organized campaigns to make trucking safer.
Of course the busting of Teamsters locals and the move to nonunion companies where workers don’t have the voice to fight for themselves doesn’t help.
Nellie Brown, the director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said drivers’ schedules are to blame. “A lot of their schedules are erratic, so people don’t truly have regular sleeping hours,” she said. “You end up with people who are horribly sleep deprived, and this kind of problem is a terribly nasty one.”
Chronically fatigued truck drivers present a danger not just to other people on the road. According to Brown, they are more likely to suffer from long-term health issues such as diabetes, cancer and various heart conditions. She said the proliferation of online ordering and just-in-time delivery practices must take a large share of the blame.
“We’re just asking more of the human body and brain than we can really do, and we’re creating the expectation that people can order things and have them by the next day,” she said.
Others have pointed the finger at declining union membership in the trucking industry. Labor membership has been on the decline across the U.S. for decades. From 1970 and 1990, the percentage of for-hire truck drivers who were union members dropped from 60 percent to 25 percent. As of 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just 17.4 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations are represented by unions.
Art Wheaton, the director of western New York labor and environmental programs at Cornell University, said unions representing truck drivers tend to bargain for additional safety provisions to fight exhaustion and then see to it those provisions are enforced.
“Many of the nonunionized companies tend to try to reduce costs, and sometimes it is at the expense of reduced safety, not only for the driver but for the general public,” he said.
Given that this could kill you or me today or tomorrow, why don’t we talk about this more?