By Curtis Price
June 11, 2020
But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)
COVID19 has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.
Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..
The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”
But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased. As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.
Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,
Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.
The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms. Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.
COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”
1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification, The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification
When I was younger, I remember my father – a railroad worker – coming home from work and hiding out for hours in his workshop in the basement. His improvised workshop was full of tools of different sizes and shapes; he poured over copies of Popular Mechanics, studying the schematics, drawing his own blueprints. I’d look at the Popular Mechanics and feel intimidated by the complexity of the designs – they made no sense but instead looked like some sort of secret code interpretable only by the initiated of some secret brotherhood, a Templar Knights of hacksaws and hammers.
Much later, when my father separated from my mother and had moved out, self-isolating to a house in a patch of the woods that he called “Poverty Hollows” – yes, he’d actually answer the phone “Poverty Hollows –he turned the garage into a workshop. (I should add he got out of a couple decades of working with a full railroad pension for having a diagnosis of vertigo; a vertigo though that didn’t stop him from driving to shop and drink beers at the local bar anytime he chose.) When he died, we had to sift through the wreckage – “clutter” is too generous a term – the turned over, abandoned chicken coops, the old refrigerators and car-carcasses in the yard straight out of rural Mississippi and a workshop where everything had rusted. Perhaps a fitting symbol for the whole scene was a mummified rat that had somehow gotten trapped in its death throes dangling from a stopped wall-clock.
Now, for many men of my father’s class and generation, the home workshop was an arena of self-expression and self-mastery, qualities that were probably lacking on their jobs. Working with your hands and tools outside of the demands of paid employment was a form of creative play, perhaps in a small way close to Marx’s famous observation from “The German Ideology” about hunting in the morning and criticizing in the evening without becoming either a “hunter” or a “critic”.
A couple years ago, I was browsing magazines in a bookstore and opened Popular Mechanics. The majority of articles were product reviews of some new whiz-bang gadget; the self-help schematics relegated to a distant second. In a tiny way, it illustrates to me the onward march of the commodification of leisure, where instead of building you now buy objects from the Sharper Image. In its small, almost insignificant manner, it signifies yet another step toward deskilling, of replacing the active ethic of the producer with the passive ethic of the consumer.
But there are two exceptions to this general trend. One, which I’m only superficially aware of, is the tinker movement, which strives to recapture some of the old skills of the home workshop, even if most of the tinkering is done with electronics. But its enthusiasts are young IT and creative types, not blue-collar workers.
The second is repairing and messin’ around with your own car. This is more widespread in the South than in the north, in part because of more relaxed zoning and code enforcement so that you can fill your yard with old cars without racking up city fines. Now, in part, this self-help repair is out of necessity and not from creativity: since people are poorer down here, working on your car becomes a responsibility and not a hobby, especially in car-dependent Southern cities. Noel Ignatiev once wrote about how auto industry supervisors complained of lazy line workers, yet these same workers spent hours off the clock fixing and souping up their own cars. It’s true: Removed from the compulsion and the regimentation of labor, a worker’s creativeness can flower.
Where I live – a low-income apartment complex – on weekends there are at least a half a dozen men with their hoods up, staring intently inside, banging and pulling at something, what I can’t see. Often their labor becomes a communal affair; others come up and watch – or pitch in. A black guy will call up a white co-worker to help him with his car – and vice versa. (1)It’s just part of the informal mutual aid that comes easier in the South, with workers of different races interacting freely and un-self-consciously; true, an infinitesimally insignificant act in the grand scheme of things but a tantalizing glimpse that prefigures a different mode of living than our present.