End the Wage Gap for the Most Essential Worker
Conservatives must grapple with the terrible economic prospects of the working class.
While most online media types are continuously focused on cultural issues—some important, some not so much—a minority of commentators and think-tanks focus on issues such as the opioid crisis laying waste to rural America. But even most of those fail to address the hard reality behind that, which is that many American working-class people, both rural and conservative, urban and liberal, have no chance whatsoever of pursuing the American Dream.
Between inflation, wage stagnation, deflation of the U.S. dollar, and more than 40 years of American manufacturing being sent around the world, the economic standing of an unhealthy number of our citizens is dangerously precarious. This must be rectified if we are to fix what commentators describe as a fatal form of “despair.” While wage stagnation is a widely acknowledged problem in the lower rungs of our economy, more often than not it is addressed in ways that are only marginally useful, or possibly even counterproductive for low-wage workers (for example, the rhetoric around “Fight for 15”). Other policy discussions are utopian in nature, such as that around Universal Basic Income.
There is, however, a bill winding its way through Congress that seeks to help re-balance a pay disparity in the U.S. labor market that would be both effective and realistic. The bill is called the Guaranteeing Overtime for Truckers Act. It is a stand-alone bill containing one line, which is to remove an exemption in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. No pork, no new regulation, no taxes.
You will be forgiven for not hearing about this bill, given a near complete wall of silence about it outside of trucking media, which, given whom they claim to advocate for, haven’t made much noise either. And the bill’s author, Democratic Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, has since been primaried out of his seat. He is, to his credit, still shepherding it along, and recently found companion support for it in the Senate.
One might be skeptical that a one-line bill, focused only on America’s truckers, could significantly help rural despair or bump up the wage floor for blue-collar Americans. Consider, though, that there are around 3.5 million active truckers in America, roughly split between working in a local capacity, or out Over The Road, spending weeks away from home to make sure America’s material economy continues to function. “Trucker” is the number one occupation in 29 states, most of them in Red America.
Nearly all truckers spend far more time on the job than the average person working a 40-hour week. The vast majority are regularly putting in 60 hours per week, often more. Many, if not most, of these drivers receive no overtime pay at all, despite it being mandated for anyone else in America working over 40 hours per week, thanks to the cited Fair Labor Standards Act, which exempted truckers from overtime pay.
You have 3.5 million people in America being grossly underpaid for the work they do, as mandated by an act of negligence on the part of someone like FDR. Many of those people live where rural decay and wage stagnation are eroding American communities. It only follows that paying these people properly, as everyone else is supposed to be paid, will go some way to increasing the wider economic prospects of those communities. Republican politicians, and the conservative commentariat more broadly, employ the rhetoric of “good paying American jobs,” but more often than not this is all noise with very little in the way of action following it. Now is a chance to change that.
Rep. Levin’s bill would go some small way in helping rural America and its backbone of blue-collar workers, by making sure truckers—whom we should remember worked their butts off through the Covid “pandemic” to keep everyone fed—are paid what they ought to be paid, and can in turn circulate more money in their communities. Also, given the effect on the overall labor market of 3.5 million people being paid more, this will have some spill-over effect to the wage floor and result in more competition for labor, such that employers in other areas will have to increase their wages to attract workers.
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The howls of protest from econ nerds already give me a fright, as they go on at length about the extra cost that will have to be passed down the line in an economy that is already on shaky ground. This is somewhat true, but it pays to remember that huge corporations such as Amazon experienced record profits during Covid lockdowns and the moral imperatives of there being two classes of workers in this country trumps marginal increases in shipping costs. Another consideration is that truckers waste a ridiculous amount of time in “detention”; if a price to their time is required to be paid, especially at overtime rates, perhaps that time will no longer be wasted. Our supply chains would breathe a sigh of relief from all of that extra capacity being freed up. And paying drivers overtime at parity with other workers will also address one of this country’s least discussed corporate welfare programs: large trucking concerns milking the taxpayer for their in-house training programs, something I discussed at length in this podcast appearance. If the retention and churn problem in trucking is reduced by paying people more, it actually saves taxpayer money.
This is not exactly the kind of thing that the Chamber of Commerce crowd wants to hear, but the foundations of an economy that supports so many at the higher end being able to regularly play golf are fast eroding and require repair. America is not only a country for office workers, but also those who regularly get up at 3 a.m. to work a 12 to 14-hour day. Every now and then a simple solution to the problems our nation faces is presented, and occasionally that solution is brought forward by conservatives’ political opponents. It would be a pretty sad outcome for America, greasing the slide of much of the country into further disrepair, if Republicans played politics with this bill, and failed to set aside their differences with the Democrats.
Truckers are a largely conservative constituency, and are also one of the most critical human links in the supply chains that bind our economy together and make it function. Given what is at stake for the American economy, and for American communities, passing Levin’s bill, and seeing to it that an unfair pay disparity is remedied, seems a ridiculously simple choice.