Money  /  Book Review

Keep on Truckin’

The road to right-wing deregulation began on our nation's highways.

In the popular memory of the 1970s, truckers appear mainly as the source of the CB radio fad and the outlaws featured in country music songs and the Smokey and the Bandit films. In that decade of oil shortages, economic stagflation, women’s liberation, and culture wars, this obscure corner of the transportation sector seems far removed from the political conflicts that were reshaping the nation. Yet on three dramatic occasions, a loose coalition of independent truckers attempted to shut down the interstate highway system and disrupt the distribution network that carried food across the United States. In effect, they tried to shut down America.

The OPEC oil embargo triggered the first two strikes, in late 1973 and early 1974, as long-haul truckers protested skyrocketing fuel costs, blockaded highways and gas stations, and engaged in sporadic violence against drivers who did not respect the boycott. The truckers demanded federal intervention to protect their economic interests, including price caps on diesel fuel, a government investigation of alleged profit gouging by oil companies, and the lifting of the recently imposed 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. President Richard Nixon responded by refusing to bargain with “a handful of desperadoes.” In 1979, when the Iranian Revolution worsened the energy crisis, about 75,000 truckers went back on strike, calling for federal action to freeze diesel prices and provide subsidies for independent owner-operators through a surcharge on the large, unionized trucking corporations regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The Independent Truckers Association, a newly formed group that organized the 1979 shutdown, also seized the opportunity to press for the complete deregulation of the industry. The Democratically-controlled Congress responded by deregulating freight trucking in the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, six months before Ronald Reagan entered the White House.

In the conventional narrative of political realignment, economic deregulation represents a key stage in the collapse of New Deal liberalism and the triumph of free-market conservatism with the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s. But where on the political spectrum should we locate the independent trucker revolts, which combined “liberal” demands for substantial government intervention with “conservative” calls for freedom of enterprise? Mike Parkhurst, the leader of the Independent Truckers Association and a self-defined “radical conservative,” portrayed deregulation as the antidote to a corrupt system of monopoly capitalism dominated by big corporations, big unions, and big government. And yet leading liberals such as Senator Ted Kennedy and activist Ralph Nader also championed trucking deregulation as a pocketbook reform that would break up government-sanctioned freight shipping cartels and reduce prices for American consumers. President Jimmy Carter endorsed this approach to fight inflation and restore economic growth, an agenda that also shaped his administration’s deregulation initiatives in the airline, railroad, telecommunications, natural gas, and banking industries. The Teamsters Union and the large firms in the American Trucking Associations bitterly resisted deregulation, but the Motor Carrier Act drew support from a broad alliance that included liberal consumer groups, the small-business lobby, agribusiness corporations, and conservative economists such as Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. Deregulation, far from being solely a right-wing cause, had surprising bedfellows.