- David McNew/Getty Images
- A Facebook group with more than 26,000 truckers called Black Smoke Matters is planning to close the nation’s highways on April 12.
- But not all truck drivers agree with the group’s methods.
- Some truck drivers have said that the group has “criminal” intentions and that a highway shutdown could be dangerous.
Chris Polk, who has been a truck driver for two decades, doesn’t like the regulations that America’s 1.8 million truck drivers must work under – especially the recently implemented safety laws that many truckers say actually make their jobs more unsafe.
Because of those laws and the general decrease in pay that truck drivers have seen, a Facebook group with more than 26,000 truckers called Black Smoke Matters is planning to close the US’s highways on April 12. Some truckers might park directly on a highway, while others are planning to refuse to work that day and stay at home.
Polk and those truck drivers can agree that the so-called electronic-logging-device mandate and other laws are untenable – but he says he won’t be joining them.
“At the core of my belief is that good ideas do not require force – coercing, aggression, blocking a highway, refusing to do work that you have agreed to do,” Polk told Business Insider. “That, in my view, is an act of violence.”
Jonathan Jenkins, who has been a truck driver for 15 years and owns a refrigerated trucking fleet, had a swifter indictment.
They’re a bunch of criminals. They’re a bunch of rebels. And the fact of the matter is they’re all going to go to jail on domestic-terrorist charges,” Jenkins told Business Insider.
Trucker strikes have had serious effects
If the Black Smoke Matters truck strike takes off on April 12 and the nation’s highways are closed, the effects could be drastic. Trucks move some 71% of the nation’s freight – and that’s not just your Amazon Prime deliveries, but food, water, and medical supplies.
Within the first day of a trucker strike, basic medical supplies like syringes and catheters would be at risk of running out. Medication for people with cancer that uses radiopharmaceuticals, which have a life span of only a few hours, would expire.
The American Trucking Associations has said that reports of a trucker work stoppage would stir up consumer panic, not unlike when hurricanes or other natural disasters lead to folks emptying grocery stores.
Further up the supply chain, manufacturing delays would become rampant. Computer and auto manufacturers, for instance, build their goods as components are received throughout the day.
And should a strike last more than a few days, grocery stores and gas stations would run out of supplies.
Some truckers say the strikes are immoral
Because of those massive effects, some truck drivers, like Chad Teague, say a trucking strike is immoral.
“Shutting down freight and stopping down movement for medical supplies and things like that is putting terror on the general public,” Teague told Business Insider. “It’s morally wrong to stop the movement of freight just because we want to stomp our feet and say we want you to hear us.”
In 1973 and 1974, independent truck drivers organized over citizens band radio to stop trucking across the US for multiple days to protest skyrocketing oil prices.
About 100,000 truckers were laid off, and the National Guard in Ohio was deployed to forcibly remove trucks from blocking the highways, sometimes using tear gas on drivers. There were fatalities too.
“There was a time in my career – I’ve been 20 years in the business – I probably would have agreed with these guys,” Polk said. “But I’ve grown to understand that my value is tied to what I can do for other people, and that’s where I feel that this group is missing the mark, because they’re only thinking about themselves. I don’t think they care about all the people who are affected.”
But the truckers in the 1970s got their demands, and the strike gave rise to the influential Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
It might also fail
Trucking-labor experts have expressed doubts about the outcome of Black Smoke Matters.
“I would be shocked if anything was successful,” Michael Belzer, an associate professor of economics at Wayne State University who has studied trucking for decades, told Business Insider. “I’m afraid organizing on Facebook is a little unrealistic.”
Regional strikes leading up to Black Smoke Matters also suggest that outcome.
Truck drivers had planned for months to do a “slow roll” around Interstate 465 in Indianapolis on February 21. The police in Indiana told the local Fox affiliate they expected as many as 400 to 500 trucks to loop twice around I-465, moving at about 45 mph, to raise awareness for trucker rights.
Ultimately, 78 truckers showed up.
One obstacle for internet-organized strikes is the size of the trucking community. There are nearly 2 million truck drivers in the US, and they are spread across the country, spending most of their days alone.
Labor unions used to merge disparate interests for not just truck drivers but employees nationwide. Labor-union membership across private-sector industries has fallen from one in three soon after World War II to one in 10 today, according to Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis.
A few decades ago, most truckers were unionized. In 1974, Belzer said, there were 2,019,300 truckers in the Teamsters. Now there are 75,000.
The 350,000 owner-operators nationwide, who average 26 years in the trucking industry, are outright barred from forming labor unions.
Polk, Teague, and Jenkins all said they were not interested in unionizing.
There has also been a decline in trucking pay and working conditions. A Business Insider analysis found that median wages for truck drivers had decreased by 21% on average since 1980 and by as much as 50% in some areas. In 1977, the mean earnings of a unionized truck driver were $96,552 in 2018 dollars, while the median earnings for a truck driver now are $42,480.
That all points to another reason the trucker strike may struggle: Truckers aren’t paid enough to be able to take a day off work.
“The average truck driver has a family to support,” Teague said. “They have a wife at home; they have kids at home. The last thing that they’re concerned with is blocking a highway. They simply just cannot afford financially to shut down the truck and not support their family.”