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When High Profits Drive Trucking, Accidents Happen

September 04, 2000|TIMOTHY LYNCH | Timothy Lynch is president of Teamsters Local 1205, based in Melville, N.Y

Every week in America, more than 100 people lose their lives, and hundreds more are mangled, in highway accidents involving trucks. Behind the wheel of the trucks in nearly all these accidents are nonunion truck drivers. It is urgent that people know the cause of these deaths, which are increasing every year, and what can be done to diminish them.

The great American educator and philosopher Eli Siegel, founder of "aesthetic realism," explained that accidents, maimings, industrial diseases and work-related fatalities have arisen from the very basis of the profit system. He explained that the system is in itself contempt for people. It is based on bosses and stockholders who don't do the work, who take the profits that other men and women work hard and long to produce.

I learned from aesthetic realism that unions have been the largest force in American history on behalf of not just economic justice for workers but safety on the job. As a union leader, I've seen vivid evidence for this fact. Unions have been the means of stopping an employer from using a human being utterly as a mechanism to supply him with money.

Passenger car drivers are to blame for many car-truck collisions. But what about the others? What is the central reason for a drowsy trucker running over a car and killing four passengers? Why does a trucker "cut corners" and rush to get the delivery made and the truck back for the next load? Because a boss sees every truck, driver and load in terms of profit for himself. The quicker the delivery and the lower the wage he pays, the bigger the profit.

Many bosses make it clear that if a trucker wants to keep his job, he'd better "deliver." They don't give a damn about what happens to that driver or to the people on the road who the driver might be endangering.

Interstate trucking is not covered under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That means that companies need not pay a driver overtime. Many companies demand that a driver work 60 or more hours per week.

Also, most interstate drivers are paid by the load or mile, not the hour. That means they are not paid for waiting time or time spent loading and unloading. So unless there is a union contract requiring respectful pay for a reasonable work week, if a driver is to eke out a living, he must work fast and long.

Siegel explained that contempt--"the addition to self through the lessening of something else"--is the source of all injustice. Contempt is what allows a person to feel superior to people of another race. And contempt is what has an employer send out a truck knowing its clutch could give way or its brakes could fail. In my years as a union organizer, I've witnessed many of the horrific results of our contemptuous economy, from broken backs to burned bodies.

And what's the reason for the increasing number of deaths caused by truck accidents? Beginning in 1970, in a series of lectures, Siegel showed that the profit system was no longer able to function successfully. He said: "There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself--the making of money, the having of jobs--becomes ethical; [until it] is based on goodwill rather than on the ill-will which has been predominant for centuries."

Today, millions of Americans are working two or more jobs just to make ends meet. Forcing people to be poorer is the only way to keep big profits coming in for people who don't do the work.

This is the reason corporate owners have closed thousands of American factories, relocating overseas where they can pay obscenely low wages and where there are virtually no regulations that protect workers.

But you can't have American trucking done in Guatemala or Indonesia. So bosses here try to force American truckers to work under horrible conditions. And they increasingly try to wipe out what would stop them: unions.

One result is that we are seeing more car-truck accidents on U.S. roads. Are our citizens--our families, our friends, ourselves--worth sacrificing on behalf of personal profit? Shouldn't America have an economy based not on profit, but on ethics? Of course, and we should begin by honestly answering this question, articulated by Siegel and at the heart of all my negotiations with employers: "What does a person deserve by being a person?"

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