Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Trucking Country" Navigates a Web of Cheap Food, Low Wages, and Agribusiness

It is a frequent contention of political liberals that working-class people that support unbridled "free market" competition have somehow been duped into voting against their own economic interests. But Shane Hamilton paints a darker picture in Trucking Country: the road to America's Wal-Mart economy: an alliance between big business, consumers and their political patrons that leaves the working class devoid of powerful allies. What's more, the University of Georgia history professor from a Wisconsin farming family traces some of the cause to the organized actions of the workers themselves.
The story begins with the "farm problem": How do we maintain a steady supply of food coupled with low prices for workers. One approach pursued by the US government has been to encourage farms to be larger and more efficient agribusinesses. This policy, along with generations of struggling farmers selling out to their neighbors, has led to larger, specialized farms. As farms got bigger, the remaining farmers had to focus on running them, rather than taking their increasing volume of produce to market. So, beginning in the 1920s, former farmers and others looking for work in rural areas went into trucking.
In 1935, Congress regulated interstate trucking, but exempted haulers of unprocessed and some minimally processed food products. The trucking industry as a whole was regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission, which put up regulatory barriers that stabilized freight prices and fostered the ascendancy of large, unionized trucking firms. These firms along with the membership of the Teamsters Union benefited from government investment in the trucking industry and infrastructure such as the Interstate Highway System.
Over time, government-subsidized agribusiness got even larger and more powerful, and the power of the Teamsters union peaked and began to erode. At the same time, individual owner operators and owners of smaller trucking firms grew increasingly resentful about the regulatory barriers that prevented them from competing in much of the trucking marketplace. The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo intensified independent truckers' dissatisfaction, and radicalized elments of a rebellious, freedom-loving trucking culture. Finally, the a confluence of political forces--neopopulist truckers, free-market advocates from across the political spectrum, neoconservatives, and even Ralph Nader--led to the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which deregulated the trucking industry.
While deregulation provided more opportunities for truckers and fostered some entrepreneurial successes, it ultimately led to consolidation of large, low-cost transportation providers; massive, rural factory farms and slaughterhouses served by low-cost trucking; lower prices for consumers; and lower wages and poorer conditions for all workers in the food supply chain. But truckers agitated for deregulation. Were they hoodwinked into advocating against their own economic interests? Hamilton contends that they were not, arguing that deregulation was the best deal that they could get in a world shaped by powerful business interests and their political patrons.
This is an absorbing and sobering book. It nicely complements the work of Michael Pollan, who has focused on the ecological, health and social consequences of industrial food production.

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