Truckers sense recession is here

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jan 16 11:53:22 MST 2001

NY Times, January 16, 2001

Seeing Hardship Through a Truck Windshield


MANADAHILL, Pa. - They wandered in off the road reeking of diesel and
themselves. They had driven in from around the country, from the stockyards
and the swamps and the steel mills. Some had driven 800 miles all day and
night to land in this truck plaza.

The highwaymen were nail-bitten and listless, their eyes half closed from
cigarette smoke and fatigue. They sat in the "tweakers' lounge," a dreary
room with rows of chairs and a large-screen television. This is where truck
drivers - some strung out from the road, others from pills and most from
cigarettes - wait to wind down. They try to sleep only because the
government makes them stop. After eight legal hours of sitting idle, they
were off again to another town, another load, on roads linking everything
together but their lives. It was 1 a.m.

These drivers were the lucky ones. They had a load and a destination, and
the only thing that was really wrong with them was overeating. It was the
other truckers standing out by the electronic strip poker machines who were
in the straits. Some had been waiting a day and a half here, just outside
Harrisburg and about 160 miles southwest of Manhattan. They were stuck at
the major routing hub for all goods moving from points north, south and
west, goods destined for the metropolis.

They were waiting for a load and they were rested. But the digital load
board near the lounge, advertising jobs in the area, told them what they
already knew; there was nothing to carry.

When you are paid by the mile, there is one law of the road and one law
only, said Robert Strong, a road-worn Cajun from Shreveport, La. "If the
wheels ain't turning, you ain't making money."

Many of these working Americans, like Mr. Strong, have no education beyond
some high school. They might read a book now and then when they can't sleep
or the weather shuts them down. They might read a little of the newspaper,
usually the sports pages. They get some of their information from
television, but most of it comes from around the coffee counters at the
truck plazas. They couldn't tell you who Alan Greenspan was, but they could
tell you this. If this is not a recession, it is close to one.

"I ain't seen it this bad in years," said Rick Hummelbaugh, 52, a barrel of
a man whom the other drivers call Dead Eye. "You got so many guys here
sitting longer between loads. And out there on the highway I'm noticing
less car carriers, less rolled steel, less lumber and less insulation. It
don't look good is all I'm saying."

Economists are not ready to call it a recession. The economy is still
growing, but at a slower pace. Automobile sales were off 18 percent last
month from a year ago; single-family-home starts fell by nearly half a
percentage point in November, their third straight monthly decline.
Moreover, 178,000 manufacturing jobs were lost last year, 62,000 in
December alone.

The trucking industry is one of the first to notice the signs when the
American economy is retreating. "We knew the economy was in trouble six
months ago," said Donald Broughton, a transportation analyst with A. G.
Edwards & Sons in St. Louis.

"Eighty percent of all goods in this country move by truck," Mr. Broughton
said. "If you're looking for an indication of where the economy is going,
take a look at what's going on on the highway."

Mr. Broughton said that more than 1,350 companies with five trucks or more
went bankrupt in the third quarter of 2000, nearly double the record set in
the previous quarter.

Industry experts attribute the failures to rising diesel costs, insurance
rates and wage pressures. But a decline in goods being shipped is a major

In tonnage, the trucking industry was off 7 percent from July through
September compared with the same period a year before. One fallout from the
downturn is that people making a marginal living hauling these goods are
being pushed to the brink, idling longer in truck stops like this, hoping
to make ends meet.

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Louis Proyect
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