We Got a Great Big ConvoyRoundup
tags: 1970s, labor history, Trucker Protests, Trucking, Teamsters, Oil Crisis
Dan Albert is the author of Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.
BY THE TIME THE RIGS SHOWED UP to terrorize Ottawa in January, the anti-mask and anti-mandate protests had become old hat. Across North America the masks were coming off, and the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate. Covid itself, or at least the latest variant, was on the wane. The protesters needed to find a new victim of government oppression. They found him in the “trucker.”
Cross-border vaccine mandates were supposed to have triggered the trucker uprising. Last November, the Canadian public health agency announced that as of January 15, 2022, truck drivers would need proof of vaccination to enter the country. (Unvaccinated Canadian citizens could enter but had to go directly into quarantine.) The United States, in coordination with the government of Canada, began enforcing its own long-planned vaccine requirement a week later, on January 22.
These mandates were enacted over the objections of a united industry. The Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations lobbied against the new rules, par for the course for corporate lobbyists. The Canadian Trucking Alliance claimed that up to 20 percent of Canadian (twenty-two thousand) and 40 percent of American (sixteen thousand) drivers who used the border would no longer be able to cross. The CTA and the American Trucking Association both argued that the mandates would exacerbate so-called “driver shortages”—more on those in a moment.
Once the border mandates went into effect, though, the industry accepted its fate. “This regulation is not changing so, as an industry, we must adapt and comply with this mandate,” said CTA president Stephen Laskowski in a press release. “The only way to cross the border, in a commercial truck or any other vehicle, is to get vaccinated.” Both the ATA and CTA condemned the trucker protests. The Teamsters Union similarly “denounce[d] the ongoing Freedom Convoy protest at the Canadian border that continues to hurt workers and negatively impact our economy.”
Nevertheless, some truckers spurned the industry and their fellow truckers. The Freedom Convoys gave new life to what had become a tired rerun. In fact, the vast majority of protesters weren’t truckers, and very few actual truckers took part. But wearing the trucker badge—and calling themselves convoys—served the movement well. “We [heart] Our Truckers,” read the hand-made sign held by a loon standing on a salted Canadian sidewalk.
The media adopted the term unquestioningly. Stock photos of tractor trailers illustrated web articles. Television reporters pointed their cameras up toward the drivers and invited them to speechify about why they were there and when they were leaving (never). As the next insurrection motored toward Washington, D.C., the Washington Post’s editorial board observed, “The truckers, like everyone else, are tired of pandemic restrictions.” Those words appeared on the web accompanied by a photo of American flags and tractor trailers on an Illinois highway.
But who, or what, is this trucker? And what work does that moniker perform? A trucker isn’t just some guy who drives a truck. Dragging a trailer full of produce from the nearby warehouse to the local Kroger does not a trucker make. Neither, in this context, is a driver shuffling containers around the Port of Los Angeles a trucker. A trucker is that fiercely independent captain of a sixty-ton ship, long-hauling freight across the boundless North American landmass. In particular, he owns and proudly drives his own truck, a machine beautifully appointed both inside and out. This is the image of the trucker that animated the entire “Freedom Convoy” project. He’s the one earning it free media. At a time when anti-masker and anti-vaxxer protests no longer held much interest, the trucker and his convoy still did.
The trucker character was born of the highway blockades of 1973. Responding to a spike in diesel prices and the enactment of a national fifty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit, independent truckers staged a series of work stoppages. These protests were widespread, disruptive, and effective. Suddenly, the trucker was everywhere. A character once confined to the lyrics of country songs became a fixture in blockbuster movies. Americans bought CB radios by the millions and learned to talk like truckers. By the time the second oil crisis in 1979 sparked another round of blockades, work stoppages, and violence, North Americans were in love. Drivers of four wheelers had come to share the trucker’s pain, and he became their hero.
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