Features
Who is Mike Belzer and why is the trucking industry listening to him?
Dr. Michael Belzer is a truck-speaking University of Michigan professor who has produced a body of convincing work dealing with deteriorating conditions in trucking. And it's earned him the attention of a frustrated industry searching for solutions.

by Paul Spillenger

Taking issue with a vital American industry

When Mike Belzer got out of college, where his interests had turned to labor issues ("My business orientation got clobbered and gave way to a labor orientation"), a mentor suggested he go get a regular job and see how people live.

"So I went out and found myself driving a truck," he says.

After driving on and off for a while, Belzer got his first real trucking job in 1975, driving a semi for a bakery delivery company in the Chicago tri-state area. There he found himself drawn to community and labor organizing.

In the fall of 1976, bakery drivers struck after companies tried to impose some pay cuts.

"We weren't going to put up with that," Belzer remembers. "We won and got a $1 an hour raise instead of a pay cut. I was impressed by that."

When Belzer was elected president of a Chicago neighborhood organization, he got a street education in grass roots organizing.

"I was seen, mistakenly, as a malleable and quiet guy by two factions who were deadlocked. After I was elected, I promptly did things they didn't expect. I converted the organization - which was controlled by the political factions of Chicago, tied to banks and big donors - into more of a grass roots community organization. That's when I discovered just how corrupt things really are in Chicago. Dealing with the old Capone ward that was running things."

But old-style ward politics was not the only place Belzer found corruption. It was the Frank Fitzsimmons era at the Teamsters, and corruption was rampant, he says, on the national and local levels.

"The union was pretty corrupt, that was clear," Belzer says. "Two things were happening simultaneously, and I experienced them in a very concrete way. First, everything people said about the union was true. I was amazed . to find out Chicago was really as corrupt as they said and the machine was as powerful as they said. And the Teamsters too. People were being beaten up in the union hall quite regularly. There was reason to believe the business agent was on the take.

"Second, deregulation was building and happening. From the day I got a job, the world was rapidly changing in trucking. I was fairly well educated and well-prepared for leadership by my education . theoretically and intellectually. But it was very difficult for me to figure out what was going on."

And this may be a key to Belzer's current status as one of the most highly regarded experts in the trucking industry. He came from business; he studied social upheaval and the labor movement at a high-powered Ivy League college (Cornell), and when he got to the "real world," he found himself baffled by the complexity of what he was seeing - the confluence of radical economic changes (industry deregulation) and the "street" reality of truckers and the union that represented them.

In a sense, "Sweatshops on Wheels" is a retrospective attempt to make sense of what Belzer has learned in his years as a driver, labor organizer and academic observer of the industry. What he found is that deregulation left the industry to the tender mercies of unbridled competition, which, Belzer argues, left the driver in the lurch, largely because it gives such power to trucking's customers: shippers and receivers. If a carrier will do anything to get business, then it's not about to rile a customer by demanding, for example, that drivers get paid for waiting at the docks.

"I didn't set out to do that in the book, but it happened that way," he says. "And I didn't go out saying now I'm going to paste the industry in the nose and give the union a pat on the back. There's plenty to love and to hate on both sides. I'm not sure I'm going to get a positive review from [Teamsters President] Jim Hoffa."

Belzer's perspective on the most significant issues facing the trucking industry is not an easy one to argue before a group that is fairly conservative. He is lobbying for restrictions on the free market, for some check on the competitive forces that depress driver wages to the point that it is increasingly hard for carriers to seat their trucks with competent drivers.

"It's a hard argument to make, but not an impossible argument to make," he says. "People have to develop a more nuanced understanding of how the market works. Shippers are cavalier about the time of people who they pay nothing. Why should a shipper or consignee be concerned about their time? What's their incentive? In a completely unregulated world, they don't have to be concerned about that time. So we need regulations that either set the boundaries of competition or very, very clearly assign to people their proper cost in the system. Of course, that's very easy to do in a theoretical model and very difficult to do in the real world."

And it's not simply an economic catastrophe, Belzer says; it's a safety hazard as well.

"We do have evidence that suggests that if you don't pay people for time, that leads to excessive hours and higher crashes," he says. "We have to recognize that an unregulated economy has some serious costs. We need to remedy those costs for the good of the employees, for the good of the industry and, frankly, for the good of the economy."

Belzer and his associates at the University of Michigan figured out that, "If you took 25 percent of all the hours that people work unpaid as non-driving time, you would pay for the cost of the entire hours-of-service regulation. If 25 percent of the driver's time is wasted and you took 25 percent of that time and added up the number of hours involved, it would be equal to the 180,000 new employees that industry says are needed [to respond to the proposed HOS rule]. We have the drivers, we're just wasting their time. All that capital is sitting there wasting away and all those drivers' efforts, the value of their work is going down the tubes. That's a national disgrace. We're not paying as a society for the cost of trucking.

"Somebody's got to do the work unless you're planning to have 'Beam me up, Scottie' be the method of [transporting goods]," Belzer says.

As an example of the mindset that ties wages to market forces alone, Belzer recalls a Dayton, OH, driver who several years ago went on a hunger strike to protest low pay and working conditions.

"They were making $8 an hour with no benefits, he notes. "And the owner said, 'These aren't dentists here. If they were going to be dentists, they would have been dentists. They're truckdrivers. They're getting what they're worth.' But if the market decides what [workers] should be paid, we develop into a very class-divided society. Competition divides society into winners and losers, and to some extent that must be moderated. If you think a divided society is good, then this is just perfect. If you think that's a problem, then you have to ask yourself what we can do to change that.

"Look, you're going to pay for it one way or the other as a society. We'll pay for it through welfare, or through crime, or through high suicide and divorce rates."

Mike Belzer has taken a geographical route that parallels his political and professional development: He started in California, trekked 3,000 miles to study at Cornell and then ended up teaching in a labor and industrial relations program in the Midwest. Having begun life in a strongly pro-business environment, he traveled far in the other direction, becoming an advocate for truckdrivers in their quest for a better life. Now, at 50, he's taken two steps back, and is eyeing the world from a more detached vantage point, and proposing that in important respects, the interests of the company are the interests of the driver.

Much like the West Coast Japanese dry farmers Belzer observed and admired as a young man in California, truckdrivers at the start of the 21st century are managing to bring economic fruit out of the ground under less than optimal conditions. Belzer's goal is to find a way to irrigate that ground, which has been parched for years by a deregulated environment, so that truckers can enjoy some of the fruit themselves.

"All competitive forces focus on the weakest link in the chain," Belzer says. "Those with the least market power. And those are the truckers."

About Belzer...

Just about halfway through the 20th century, Mike Belzer was born in rural Los Angeles, out by the airport, in a town that today, by merit of the infamous L.A. sprawl, doesn't even have a name. He was raised in Torrance, 25 miles from downtown on the southwest side of the City of Angels, where, he says, there was nothing but beaches and more beaches. And Japanese dry farmers.

"They got fabulous strawberries out of the land. It was the greatest strawberry patch in the world," Belzer recalls, with a touch of awe in his voice. "And they're still there! They basically farm on the humidity that comes from the fog. They're just geniuses at creating something out of nothing."

If you read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or Traffic World, you've heard of Mike Belzer, though not on the subject of farming. You've heard him wax eloquent on the lives of truckdrivers, on the grievous impact of industry deregulation, on Jim Hoffa and the Teamsters union, on the role of driver fatigue in highway safety. And he's just come out with a new book, "Sweatshops on Wheels," which is attracting a lot of attention from all segments of the industry. The book, which documents the ways deregulation has damaged drivers - and, by extension, carriers - boasts flattering jacket blurbs from Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and Tim Lynch of the Motor Freight Carriers Association.

Which tells you something about the weight Belzer's arguments carry with men who head such different organizations.

Belzer's a University of Michigan professor who speaks truck. He speaks the same language trucking company owners speak, and he is fluent in the reality that truckers live every day. One reason is that he worked as a trucker himself for 10 years. When he talks about the ways shippers and receivers exploit truck- drivers at the loading and unloading docks, he speaks from personal experience, not from the lofty perspective of the ivory tower.

Another reason is the characteristic curiosity about what he sees that allows him to exult even today in the art of Japanese strawberry farmers whom he watched, as a younger man, create something out of nothing.

Belzer came of age in the late 1960s and early '70s, when political activism and labor organizing were still noble callings. But before starting college at Cornell University in 1968, he grew up in California surrounded by business. His father, who owned an aluminum sawing and distribution company, instilled a few basic business wisdoms in his eldest son, such as the strategy of staying one step ahead of the marketplace by saving his customers money.

"I learned this lesson 40 years ago -that you make money by saving customers money and providing a service that no one else is capable of providing or willing to provide," Belzer says. "Every now and then I find myself quoting maxims that come from that experience. One of the problems in trucking is that customers think of trucking as an undifferentiated commodity, a black box; they think in terms of price. So figuring out how to save your customers money is perhaps a different way to think about how you define yourself in the marketplace."

So, yes, Belzer does talk business. But like many of his generation, his political consciousness was formed to a great extent by his experiences at college.

"It was a tumultuous time," he recalls. "Three out of four of my spring terms were significantly disrupted to the point that school stopped or nearly stopped. Civil rights issues, Vietnam war issues. I was profoundly affected by it."

Aug/Sept Digital Edition