Saturday, February 28, 2009

Truckers and Food Prices

Freakonomics blog talks about the role truckers have in the American economy, from the author of Trucking Nation, a book I am soon going to read.

From the article

Q How have truckers’ attitudes toward their jobs affected food prices?

A The key connection between trucker culture and food costs in the mid-20th century was the deep-seated resistance of many independent truckers to labor unions. Most truckers who hauled farm products, rather than general freight, were not members of the Teamsters’ union — even though the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was the nation’s single largest and most powerful union from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. This was in part a product of truckers’ sense of independence — as Rubber Duck played by Kris Kristofferson in the 1978 movie Convoy declares, “The Teamsters ain’t my damn union!” But this ferocious anti-union stance was also encouraged by federal policies that exempted farm and food truckers from the regulatory oversight of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Unlike the regulated, consolidated general freight sector, farm and food trucking was largely carried out by unregulated small firms. These small companies, often owned and operated by a single individual, were extremely difficult for the Teamsters to organize. In the decades from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, agribusiness firms relied on these non-union truckers to dramatically transform the way food moved from farm to fork, lowering the prices of key foods such as beef, milk, and packaged produce for supermarket shoppers.

In the case of milk, for instance, milk processors relied on non-union truckers to deliver cheap milk in paper cartons and plastic jugs directly to supermarket loading docks beginning in the 1950’s, rather than deliver milk in glass bottles to consumers’ doorsteps via Teamster milkmen as had been done since the late 19th century.

So independent truckers’ willingness to perform sweated labor without union representation (and the high wages and pension benefits that went along with membership) played a large part, I think, in the decline of food costs as a portion of the average American family’s budget in the second half of the 20th century.

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