A trucker told the truth, and his company fired him. The gentleman’s name is Rene Flores; he’s 36 and a truck driver. He had $60,000 invested in down-payment on his truck. That’s gone now.
The story of Flores is the tale of trucking in America. One day, a reporter came knocking. He had questions for Flores. His name was Brett Murphy. Back then, Murphy was a journo grad student at Berkeley. He started working the modern trucking beat when he was still in school. Murphy had heard stories about the trucking industry. He was curious about how Everything Was Shipped. Trucking is like cat-curiosity: despite dangers, it goes on. The government allows the industry to walk on by. Who cares, as long as the goods are there? Trucking is akin to oil—the third rail of American commerce. When was the last time you heard a politician speaking of the importance of monitoring truck companies?
Flores told him. The industry makes truckers work 20-hour days, he said. We have to lease our trucks, he said. We are forced to play by their rules, he told Murphy; we drive according to their hours, in violation of federal law. Murphy took painstaking care with the feature. The story was printed. It was titled, accurately, “Rigged: Forced Into Debt. Worked Past Exhaustion. Left With Nothing.” And a nation reeled. The story showed how the skeleton of post-industrial American capitalism was held up: by tired, broken women and men. It began like this:
Samuel Talavera Jr. did everything his bosses asked. Most days, the trucker would drive more than 16 hours straight hauling LG dishwashers and Kumho tires to warehouses around Los Angeles, on their way to retail stores nationwide. He rarely went home to his family. At night, he crawled into the back of his cab and slept in the company parking lot. For all of that, he took home as little as 67 cents a week.
According to the Sidney Hillman Foundation:
Short-haul truckers, like Samuel Talavera Jr. and Rene Flores, move vast quantities of merchandise from the ports of Los Angeles to rail yards and storage depots. [Murphy’s investigation] revealed that the industry runs on a modern-day form of indentured servitude.
Murphy notes that this is start of a protracted process which spoils the company, and rods the driver. Hillman again, summarizing Murphy:
The racket starts with the allure of a lease-to-own agreement for the truck. But, if a driver misses a payment, gets sick, quits or gets fired, they lose not just the truck but every cent they’ve paid into it. Then the company leases the truck to someone else. Some truckers work twenty hours a day, six days a week, just to make ends meet. At times, Talavera earned just sixty-seven cents a week. He eventually lost his truck and the $78,000 he’d paid for it because he couldn’t afford repairs. Some companies have told their employees that they owe them money at week’s end. Some companies physically bar their employees from going home, forcing them to sleep in their trucks.
The humiliations of trucker life were detailed in Murphy’s story. It makes the life of a kennel greyhound seem like the Riviera. Pick a paragraph in Murphy’s story, and you’ll find a rage-making insult to the dignity of working people. The grim contracts. The sign-or-be-fired strong-arming. The ever-present fatigue. Murphy’s tale is The Jungle in miniature. Imagine a depressed student’s diorama titled “Industrial Life” and you have it. What the USA Today feature delivers is a compilation of pettiness and buck-scrounging to curl the hair and twist the soul. Trucking companies deliver goods, not goodness.
The article was published June 16. And after the truth had been said, and published in ink and online, what happened? Did justice pour down like mighty waters? No. The powers above him sent this father and husband to the unemployment line; they axed him the very next day. What a perfect summation of American business as usual. This is how Morgan Southern and their parent company, Roadrunner Transportation, handle their affairs.
Who was afraid of Flores? USA Today explains the story:
Robert Milane, a spokesman and lawyer for Morgan Southern’s parent company Roadrunner Transportation, confirmed that Flores’ public criticism, coupled with the fact that he refused to use electronic logbooks, forced the company to act. “The fact that he stated that in his interview, we had no choice to terminate his lease,” Milane said. “He brought this on himself.”
“Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” Think of this unctuous corporation sending a truck driver a message of silence. Be obedient, or your children go hungry. What is it like, I wonder, to be a villain from a Capra film?
Milane also denied that Flores drove more than federal law permits. He said Morgan Southern’s electronic time logs prevent any driver from doing so. “What he says wasn’t true,” Milane said. “I know he wasn’t running over hours.” But Flores said he would simply switch over to paper logbooks when he knew he would be working past federal limits.
This is the character of these people, the management of Roadrunner Transportation. What a collection of first-rate Americans.
Why would you expect an industry that keeps “indentured servants” to care about its cogs rebelling? Time was, truckers could make money. Truckers who owned their own rig could pack away a decent life for their family by hauling goods across the nation. It wasn’t perfect, but it was all some people had. In 2008, a fine was imposed on a mess of trucking companies. They got slapped with $2.5 billion in fees for diesel fumes. What did the companies do? They let the truckers pay for it, through a hundred dubious devices and schemes. “There are 800 companies regularly operating at the LA ports. Almost all of them turned to some form of a lease-to-own mode,” Murphy wrote. In this economy, trucking companies wants to own everything, except their mistakes. Hire Flores.