Take It From a Trucker: There's No Trucker Shortage. It's a Pay Shortage | Opinion

We're in a supply chain crisis. Store shelves are empty. Prices are skyrocketing. Ports are packed with freight waiting to be trucked out. Off the coast of New York and Los Angeles, cargo ships stacked with shipping containers now wait weeks to be unloaded.

The trucking industry has blamed a driver shortage for goods not getting from port to shelf. But the truth is, there is no trucker shortage; there's a pay shortage.

I'm a hazmat tanker truck driver. I effectively drive a bomb for a living. And in 2020, I made only $4,000 more than I took home in 2005. I've spent my entire life living below the state median household income everywhere I lived.

Truckers are the most logistically critical and yet the lowest paid link in the supply chain. We haul the frozen turkeys that get carved at your table. We run oxygen tankers for half a shift and operate specialized equipment the other half. We pump off the jet fuel that launches planes into the sky and gravity drop the gasoline that combusts in your engine. The inputs and outputs of the world economy move through our hands and rest on our shoulders. If you got it, a trucker brought it.

Who is a truck driver? We're everybody. Truckers are Black and white. We're Catholics, Evangelicals, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons and Jews. We are some of the least bigoted people around. Try hating on a dude you share a truck with. It don't work.

I worked 12-14 hour shifts throughout the pandemic. I caught COVID-19 from a coworker, since we share the same truck. So I took 10 days off and then went back to work. The boss class Zoomed it in, while the working class put out.

Our jobs are essential because they are rooted in manufacturing and delivering goods, the underpinning of every major economy on the planet. And unlike politicians, we materially improve the lives of the American people.

And yet, this "essential" job pays a garbage wage. The median annual income for a truck driver in this country is less than $40,000 a year. For many of us, 50 percent of our take-home pay immediately disappears to cover rent. Compare that to the median annual income for a cop in this country, which is $67,000 per year. That's enough to buy a house, raise a family, and live a life. Meanwhile, truck drivers have the seventh most deadly job in America, with the highest number of fatalities per year, while cops come in twenty-second. A truck driver is 200 percent more likely than a cop to get killed on the job. Cops have unions. Most truckers don't. Union jobs pay better and play safer.

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LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 27 : Semi truck drivers arrive to pickup and deliver products at the Port of Long Beach, October 27, 2014 in Long Beach, California. Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

We need change. We need better pay and we need unions.

This past April, President Biden raised the federal contractor's minimum wage to $15 an hour with executive order 14026. He should make it $25 an hour. Why $25? The median rent for a one bedroom apartment in this country is $1422 a month. $25 an hour means that the lowest paid employee of a federal contractor working 40 hours a week (a taxpayer-funded employee) would spend about 30 percent of take-home pay on rent. This should be the baseline for all of us!

Meanwhile, the largest corporations in America, my employer included, are federal contractors. Through executive order, "Union Guy" Joe could prioritize federal contracts to contractors who have collective bargaining agreements with their workforce. This would bring unions to the nation's largest trucking and logistics companies, as well as to Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, big tech and low tech jobs alike.

The message the President should be sending out is simple: You wanna suckle at that sweet Fed teat? Unionize or you're gonna get weaned.

If FDR taught us anything, it's that presidents can make big things happen. With big unions, we built big modern power plants to electrify the nation. We built big factories that built fast-as-lightning cars, and union workers got big middle class paychecks. This is history, not hope.

But I am not hopeful. The Democratic allegiance to working class unions is a campaign strategy, not a governing reality.

We're out of options. We can't work our way out of poverty. We can't vote our way out of poverty. I just turned 46. I live in a working poor neighborhood, where families gather at stop lights on the weekends collecting donations to cover funeral expenses for a dead little girl or cancer treatments for a dying old man. These streets are dotted with sidewalk signs peddling "cash for diabetic strips" and "cash for mobile homes." These are ads for the end times.

I can only hope that the supply chain crisis is the wakeup call we need.

Cyrus Tharpe is a hazmat tanker truck driver.

The views in this article are the writer's own.