The Big Rig
Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream
University of California Press 2016
There may not be a more ubiquitous presence on American highways than the truck. The images are iconic: eighteen-wheelers with muddy steel and chrome, and a driver in aviator sunglasses and a mesh hat. But as Steve Viscelli, political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his new book, The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream (University of California Press, 2016), the romantic idea of the hardworking, solitary truck driver making a decent, honest living for his family must be laid to rest. Once among the best blue-collar jobs in the country with one of the strongest labor unions, the deregulation and subsequent greedy practices of the trucking industry turned it into a “bad” one, with very low pay, very long and unpredictable hours, and awful work conditions. Aware of these realities, the trucking industry does a masterful job of creating and maintaining the illusion that being a truck driver is still a path toward upward mobility, an honest and true working-class version of the American Dream. They structure work so that workers play a “miles game” of always trying to maximize time for a little extra pay, and push the allure of becoming an independent contractor, which only indebts them to their company. Becoming a trucker himself, Viscelli vividly shows his own frustrations in training and out on the road, caught up in the game and hearing stories of workers who haven’t seen their families in weeks and are still struggling to make ends meet. Through an illuminating case, Viscelli addresses the timeless questions: “Why do people work bad jobs?” and “Why do they stay in them for as long as they do?” His answers get at the heart not just of a single occupation and industry, but also of work in today’s economy.
Richard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the author of Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017), about the transformation of low-status occupations into cool, cultural taste-making jobs (cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale mens barbers, and whole animal butchers), and of Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton University Press, 2014), about growth policies, nightlife, and conflict in gentrified neighborhoods. His work has appeared in such journals as City & Community, Poetics, Ethnography, and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. He is also the editor of Ethnography and the City: Readings on Doing Urban Fieldwork (Routledge, 2012) and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Metropolitics, Work and Occupations, and the Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography.