Strikes don't usually succeed without a union - but a vigilante group of 15,000 truckers are hoping to prove the opposite

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truck driverNati Harnik/AP

  • The electronic-logging-device mandate, debates over unpaid breaks, and other concerns wracked truck drivers in 2018.
  • Thousands of truckers are planning to protest the state of trucking with "a nationwide shutdown" on April 12.
  • They are organizing the strike in a Facebook group called "Black Smoke Matters."
  • Trucking labor experts told Business Insider that the effort will likely not result in anything.
  • "(W)hat the public doesn't realize is that behind the scenes Black Smoke Matters is very organized," Black Smoke Matters president Mike Robbins said.

Fewer than 10% of America's 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers are unionized. And independent truck drivers, called owner-operators, are outright banned from forming unions.

That makes it difficult for truckers, who are spread all over the country and often working solo, to advocate for their rights. Today, many truck drivers feel that their voices aren't included in creating the policies that affect them.

A group called "Black Smoke Matters", which has accrued some 15,000 members on Facebook, seeks to change that. The group is organizing a strike on April 12, which would "shut down" trucking for one or more days across the country. For truckers, that might mean staying at home, parking in trucker rest stops, or literally blocking the freeways.

"It's up to the individual, but we we would love everyone to be involved," Black Smoke Matters president Lori Franklin told Business Insider. "We want all trucks to come to a standstill."

Read more: Thousands of truckers in a Facebook group called 'Black Smoke Matters' are planning a one-day nationwide strike this April

The hoped-for result is that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration takes truckers' side of things into account when considering new policies. At the top of the list is the electronic-logging mandate, which came into effect in December 2017. The mandate requires truckers to keep an electronic log in their cabins to ensure they don't work for more than 14 hours a day or drive more than 11, in accordance with the hours-of-service law. Many truckers have told Business Insider that the federal mandate cut down on their wages, freedom, and safety.

But experts who study trucking labor said Black Smoke Matters isn't likely to succeed.

"I would be shocked if anything was successful," Michael Belzer, an associate professor in economics at Wayne State University who has studied trucking for decades, told Business Insider. "I'm afraid organizing on Facebook is a little unrealistic."

Truck DriverA trucker drives near City Hall in Los Angeles, California.David McNew/Getty Images

Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said social-media-organized trucker strikes have been common since the late aughts. They've largely failed, but that's not to say that the technology-based organizing tactic is doomed forever.

And if Black Smoke Matters succeeds, it wouldn't be the first time naysayers were proved wrong. In 1973-4, independent truck drivers organized over CB radio to shut down trucking across the US for multiple days in protest of skyrocketing oil prices. Truckers won their demands after the shutdown, and the strike gave rise to the influential Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association.

"It takes time for new kinds of worker strategies to get traction," Viscelli told Business Insider. "And maybe there is potential for drivers to do the kinds of things unions used to do - like get them decent pay and working conditions and a say in what happens in terms of policy - through technology."

Some say the tactics aren't developed

Most pointedly, the "Black Smoke Matters" name isn't attractive to left-leaning, socially minded people who might otherwise support the strike. The name is "a play off" the "Black Lives Matter" social movement launched in response to police killings of black Americans, Black Smoke Matters president Mike Robbins previously told Business Insider.

Read more: Thousands of truck drivers are organizing a strike in a Facebook group called 'Black Smoke Matters' - here's the origin of the provocative name

Further, Belzer said their messaging addresses nitty-gritty details that the public might not understand about trucking - like the ELD mandate, hours-of-service laws, and rest-stop parking. The ELD mandate was one of the driving forces for organizing the strike, as many truckers said the electronic log forces them to speed against the clock.

"I'm hoping they will change laws around the ELDs," Franklin said. "I'm hoping they could do away with them."

One of the many consternations ELDs have brought to truckers like Franklin is limiting parking at truck stops. Because most truckers are now working around the same time every day, they're also populating parking spots at the same time. So, many truckers aren't able to find a place to park their truck and sleep at night.

"Parking is one of my worst enemies," Franklin said. "I worry every day about where I'm going to park."

truck driverDavid Goldman/AP

But ELDs might sound reasonable on paper to the general population; they ensure truck drivers don't drive more than 11 hours a day in a 14-hour block.

"The public won't support them on such a question," Belzer said. "To the extent that public is at all aware of the ELD, they're going to think, 'Why not have an ELD? It sounds great.'"

Viscelli said it's altogether unwise for Black Smoke Matters to focus on the problems stemming from ELDs and other government mandates.

"ELDs aren't the problem," Viscelli said. "They are a symptom of the bigger problems of driver mistreatment and lack of power."

Read more: Truckers reveal in a new survey who they hate shipping for the most

Another obstacle for internet-organized strikes is the size of the trucking community. Truck drivers number nearly two million and are spread across the country, spending most of their days alone.

"This isn't Tahrir Square," Bezler said.

Above all, Belzer said Black Smoke Matters will likely fail because organized labor movements have been systemically and legally suppressed across the private sector.

"It's going to be very difficult [to strike] without recognition that workers have a right to organize," Belzer said.

But Robbins said Black Smoke Matters' tactics and response rate have been promising. With an executive board of 11 nationwide, they've been putting up Black Smoke Matters flyers at truck stops around the country. And the group is encouraging truckers to strike for as little as a day or as long as a week - meaning they might not necessarily lose wages. That could involve blocking the freeways or just spending time at home.

"We're known as a rough and rowdy group, but what the public doesn't realize is that behind the scenes Black Smoke Matters is very organized," Robbins said.

The value of unionizing

As the typical joke in trucking goes, you can't get two truck drivers to agree on the price of a free cup of coffee.

When examining trucker-resistance movements that have arisen over the past decade, a patchwork of groups, like the United States Transportation Alliance (USTA) and Operation Black and Blue, appear.

Those "diffused" groups lack the power that a single, cohesive group can have, Belzer said.

truck driverScott Olson/Getty Images

Labor unions used to merge the interests of disparate interests not just for truck drivers, but employees nationwide. Across private-sector industries nationwide, labor union membership has fallen from one in three in the post-War World II era to one in 10 today, according to Jake Rosenfeld of the University of Washington in St. Louis.

A few decades ago, most truckers were unionized. In 1974, Belzer said there were 2,019,300 truckers in Teamsters. Now, there are 75,000. Owner-operators, who total 350,000 nationwide and average 26 years in the trucking industry, are outright banned from forming labor unions.

The decline of Teamsters follow a decline in trucking pay and working conditions. A Business Insider analysis showed that median wages for truck drivers have decreased 21% on average since 1980. In some areas, they've declined as much as 50%. In 1977, the mean earnings of a unionized truck driver stood at $96,552 in 2018 dollars. The median earning of a truck driver now stands at $42,480.

trucker wages 1980 vs 2017Bureau of Labor Statistics, Andy Kiersz/Business Insider

Viscelli said a major benefit of unions, along with fighting for contracts with fair wages and benefits, provide unified messaging during strikes. That ensures the public and government officials, along with the truckers' employers, can understand the key issues that employees face.

"Back when there were Teamsters in long-haul, that was called solidarity - that old-fashioned idea that workers have common interests vis À vis their employer and should stick together in advancing those interests," Viscelli said.

Read more: Walmart's trucking fleet used to be as selective as Harvard, but a truck driver shortage has changed how Walmart hires

Viscelli said union leaders have the ability to more effectively lobby the government than disparate social media movements.

But trucker Facebook groups are already doing like this - it's just that they don't feel their voices are being heard. USTA and Black Smoke Matters representatives have met with FMCSA officials at least twice over the past two years.

truck driver happy.JPGNick Carey/Reuters

It's not uncommon for truckers clock in up to 100 hours a week, Belzer said. They're not paid for rest breaks. And they're often forced to spend hours waiting for shipments at warehouses - unpaid.

This ultra-stressful environment, Robbins said, "is the furthest thing from safe."

Are you a truck driver with a story about the industry? Email the author at rpremack@businessinsider.com.

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