On October 31, Sayfullo Saipov, a twenty-nine-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan, committed the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11.
Nothing justifies Saipov’s murderous actions that day. Careening down a mile-long bike path in a rented Home Depot truck, he killed eight people and seriously injured many more.
His actions will only legitimize the frenzied Islamophobia many Americans already embrace, justify further military interventions in the Middle East, and likely lead to the abolition of the immigration program — the Diversity Visa Lottery Program — that allowed him to come to the United States.
The federal investigation will try to uncover why Saipov joined the Islamic State, but it will likely ignore his miserable life as a truck driver — the most plausible explanation for his growing dissatisfaction with the United States.
A day after the attack, the New York Times reported:
Mr. Saipov drove a semi-truck for a living, logging tens of thousands of miles back and forth across the country, from Denver to Detroit, from Canton, Mass., to Salt Lake City. He moved his wife and children from state to state, always searching for something — friends in Ohio, a new life in Florida, family in New Jersey, where he started driving for Uber six months ago. Nothing ever stuck.
Saipov arrived in 2010, one of the worst years of the Great Recession. Trained as an accountant, he hoped to get into the hotel business, but, desperate for work, he took a job driving a truck. He tried to start his own trucking companies, but none of them worked out. He “mainly drove for others, companies like Abror Logistics out of Paterson, NJ,” according to the New York Times.
The state police forces that patrol the nation’s highways routinely profile African-American and immigrant drivers. The latter often gets stuck with the worst vehicles, making them even more likely to be pulled over. Most companies refuse to pay their drivers’ tickets, even if they are responsible for the violation.
Iowa seemed to be an especially unlucky place for Saipov. As the Times story reports:
There he was in Iowa, in December 2011, waiting for 35 minutes along Interstate 80 as officers checked his truck and documents, wrote him a ticket and let him go on his way to Salt Lake City. There he was in Iowa again, in April 2014, stopped for more than an hour for having a cracked windshield and for missing a reflective device while driving a load of cars from Denver to Detroit.
And there he was repeatedly at the weigh station at the 415-mile marker on Interstate 80 in Nebraska. Mr. Saipov received a ticket there for driving too long without required rest and for carrying a load just slightly more than allowed.
Married with three kids, Saipov was broke and desperate for a change. He started working for Uber, which promised big bucks for new hires.
Once touted as a techno-marvel disrupting the ancient taxi industry, Uber has since proven to be more like an old-fashioned sharecropping operation. Earlier this year, the Silicon Valley giant agreed to pay a $20 million settlement to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) “after it was found that the ride-sharing company made exaggerated claims about how much drivers could earn on its platform, and how affordable its vehicle financing plans were.”
These ads were designed to attract low-paid workers like Saipov.
Sweatshops on Wheels
Saipov’s miserable, nomadic work life represents the end of forty years of declining conditions for American workers. But it wasn’t always like this, especially for truck drivers.
As Steve Viscelli’s The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream reminds us, “From the 1950s to the late 1970s, truckers were the best-paid and most powerful segment of the US working class.”
During those three decades, the Teamsters, aided by New Deal–era regulations of the interstate trucking industry, peaked at slightly over two million members. In 1976, the Teamsters’ National Master Freight Agreement, the jewel in the crown of the union’s most notorious leader, Jimmy Hoffa, covered nearly four hundred thousand freight drivers alone.
The Teamsters were simply bigger and stronger than the companies they negotiated with, and they forced nonunion operations to pay comparable rates.
But the cataclysmic restructuring of the trucking industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s shifted the ground underneath the union’s feet. By the early 1990s, its membership had been cut nearly in half. The bosses had reclaimed class power.
A one-sided reading of that era blames Ronald Reagan and the New Right for imposing the policies we now call “neoliberalism,” but liberal democrats, led by former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter, turned corporate America’s fantasies into reality.
Carter’s deregulation guru Alfred Kahn — a self-described “good liberal democrat and the former chairman of the Department of Economics at Cornell University — declared:
I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off. I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off. I want to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average.
Kahn made it so: by the late 1990s, working conditions had declined so much that Teamster-turned-academic Mike Belzer described his old industry as Sweatshops on Wheels.
The situation for truck drivers has actually gotten worse since then. Many companies hire long-distance drivers as independent contractors. They pay by the mile, so some workers earn as little as half the federal minimum wage if we calculate their wages by the hours worked instead of the miles driven. Others buy trucks they cannot afford and work in a situation that resembles debt peonage.
Young workers and immigrants are especially vulnerable to these practices. This was the world Sayfullo Saipov fell into.
Viscelli studied the trucking industry for a decade, spending six months working as a long-distance driver. After speaking to hundreds of truckers across the country with a wide range of experiences, ages, and backgrounds, he concluded:
Many [older drivers] also wouldn’t be surprised by my conclusion that the industry systematically mistreats and misleads drivers, transferring to them much of the cost and risk of the industry’s inefficiencies. What was for me one of the most shocking findings of my research — that employers keep wages low and encourage workers to take on the risk of owning trucks by supporting third-party companies that are allied with them — probably would not surprise the most experienced truckers either. But I suspect that even those drivers would be surprised by how sophisticated this coordination is.
Maybe Saipov wasn’t conned into buying a truck and driving himself into debt, but so many are. In June of this year, USA Today published the results of a yearlong investigation into truck drivers’ working conditions. The workers they interviewed are based out of the Port of Los Angeles, and they primarily “move goods for America’s most beloved retailers, from Costco to Target to Home Depot.”
Port trucking companies in southern California have spent the past decade forcing drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford. Companies then used that debt as leverage to extract forced labor and trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.
If a driver quit, the company seized his truck and kept everything he had paid towards owning it.
If drivers missed payments, or if they got sick or became too exhausted to go on, their companies fired them and kept everything. Then they turned around and leased the trucks to someone else.
Drivers who manage to hang on to their jobs sometimes end up owing money to their employers — essentially working for free. Reporters identified seven different companies that have told their employees they owe money at week’s end.
USA Today described these drivers as “modern-day indentured servants.”
“There are 1.7 million men and women working as long-haul truck drivers in the country,” Trip Gabriel of the New York Times reported this past spring. “Yet truckers — high up in their cabs — are literally out of view for most Americans.”
Gabriel interviewed many drivers at the Petro truck stop in Effingham, Illinois about the difficulties of their work life. Greg Simmons, a fifty-four-year-old, twenty-seven-year veteran driver out of Florida, told Gabriel:
We’re throwaway people. Nobody cares about us. Everybody’s perception of a truck driver is we clog up traffic, we get in the way, we pollute the environment.
Another driver, thirty-nine-year-old Californian Ayisha Gomez, who started driving three years ago, exemplifies the situation of new drivers:
Ms. Gomez explained that her first year was the hardest because she was required to drive for the large freight company that trained her, which paid a low mileage rate. Since the trucking industry was deregulated a generation ago, drivers’ pay has fallen. Truckers earn on average $43,600 a year, less than [what they earned] in 1980 when adjusted for inflation. Many work the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
If we had a large union movement that couldimprove the truckers’ working conditions, would Sayfullo Saipov have led an obscure but reasonably happy life? Would his eight victims have gone on with their lives?
We will never know.
We do know that Saipov worked in an industry designed to keep its employees dependent on their bosses. From the old-fashioned trucking companies to the start-ups like Uber, drivers earn less and work harder now than they did just forty years ago.
I can’t help but wonder if Saipov was more like the perpetrators of workplace violence — who have characterized this country since the Reagan presidency — than like an Islamist terrorist.