Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Occupation of Long-Distance Mover: A New Occupational Memoir Educates and Enlightens

            Movers are not infrequent visitors to workers’ compensation hearing rooms. The unusual patterns of their often-rigorous work seem to give rise to many opportunities for work injuries. Surely many moves become standard, but I have always been impressed that moving such things as pianos and wardrobes up and down residential staircases, and building the tiers of furniture within the truck, must constitute one of the most challenging types of physical work. Strength, coordination, and skill are all involved.

           In a recent case that I entertained, a local mover, named Aaron, had sustained two recognized injuries and had ultimately been laid off from his light duty. He was seeking reinstatement of disability benefits but, during the proceedings, thought better of his occupation, retrained as an x-ray technician, and compromise-settled. He was, after all, pushing the ripe old age of 40.  

             In a thoughtful new memoir, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (W.W. Norton & Co. 2017), the author, Finn Murphy, tells stories of his life as a mover. He started as a college student undertaking local moves, but for many years has worked as a contractor for a Connecticut-based North American Van Lines firm undertaking high-end, cross-country moves. Now in his late fifties, he leases the truck from North American and receives jobs from the firm, but each effort is his to captain. In this regard, the loading and unloading, retaining of helpers at start and end, and assuring customer satisfaction, are all his responsibilities. He must, in addition, handle the operation so that he can achieve a profit out of his commission when the job is completed.

            One learns much about the moving business, and the occupation of mover, in this entertaining new book, but injuries do not turn out to be a dominant theme. On the other hand, the whole narrative takes for granted that moving is extremely physical work and full of hazards. Indeed, on the author’s first day, he lacerates his arms while carrying heavy items down the customer’s stairs. A few hours later, he is goaded into too many beers at lunch and ends up falling through the customer’s attic rafters, through the drywall of the ceiling, and into the master-suite bed. Somehow, he isn’t fired.

            And, of course, the driving itself can be hazardous. In one harrowing account, Murphy tells of coming upon a truck accident on I-80, near Clarion, PA, where his counterpart has apparently been killed after hitting deer. The nature of the work, meanwhile, can be mentally stressful, with demanding, often difficult customers (“shippers,” in his parlance), suicidal motorcyclists, traffic in general, deadlines, and the challenge of finding good unloading help at destination. At one point, after a day’s work well done, he ponders, “Are these briefs moments of euphoria worth the pounding loneliness, the physical abuse, and the lack of direction my job entails?”

              Injuries are not the theme, but Murphy’s philosophical views, based on his many years on the road, are certainly hard to miss. In fact, it may be that this memoir is a sociological tract as well as an occupational history. He has, for example, many complaints to share, both big and small. As for the big, he complains of globalization and (among other things) its contribution to destroying downtowns throughout the country and promoting commercial sprawl. As to the small, he assails the trend of truck stops discontinuing their restaurants and replacing them with Subway outlets – he even seems bitter about the Subway shredded lettuce, which he says is tasteless and, in any event, always landing on the floor of his truck cab.

            Murphy has an independent streak, and in political terms he seems a fierce egalitarian. He certainly avoids references to party politics (wisely, none appears; he apparently wants everyone to stick with his book until the end), but he is openly contemptuous of the bigotry that many of his wealthy customers display toward his Latino and other leveraged helpers. In one disturbing scene, for example, one rich customer’s wife openly videotapes the move, presumably to document theft and better file any subsequent insurance claim. Meanwhile, he senses that many of the shippers he services have wealth which is the result of ill-gotten gains. He depicts one banker he moved as relocating to yet another suburban castle so that, in the new area, he can once again rip people off. (I don’t know how Murphy could really know this, and here the author certainly displays some class resentment.)          

            The author speaks at length about the rudeness of many shippers, who unwisely commence their relationship with their movers by showing utter hostility. Does it really make any sense, he asks, to entrust all your worldly belongings to people who are not only strangers to you, but who you have mistreated as well? Better, Murphy counsels, to provide coffee and donuts – and a nice tip.      

            Murphy also reveals that a hierarchy among over-the-road truck drivers exists. He asserts that most truckers look down on movers who, in the trade, are called “bedbuggers.” This is so even though many movers – particularly our author, moving the high-end jobs – make more than the unionized drivers of the major carriers, and certainly more than the increasingly-leveraged independent truckers. (Murphy says he can make $250,000.00 per year.) Ironically, over-the-road movers seem, in turn, to look down on their local-driver counterparts. In one scene, one such high-end driver brusquely turns down, at the end of the day, the opportunity to join the local drivers for a beer.

            Murphy’s egalitarianism is evident when he talks about a sensitive issue: the labor pool which takes care of unloading many of his interstate jobs. He asserts that the majority of such workers in the present day are Latinos, in part because many whites turn down such work. Yet, he complains, Latinos are unfairly vilified in our national political discourse. Murphy also confesses, however, that when hard-working labor from Mexican-Americans is not available, he has secured day labor from soup kitchens, parole offices, and even corner bars. In a break from Murphy’s robust egalitarianism, however, he will not be soliciting these types of gentlemen for his high-end jobs.

            The author also notes that many African-American men achieved entry into the middle-class, over the decades, by devoting themselves to long-haul trucking. Speaking of such individuals, he states, “The work is so hard and held in such low esteem that there’s not a lot of room left over for bigotry. Anyone who will do this job is accepted.” To Murphy, who takes pride in his work, and considers himself a professional, this striving and achievement is deserving of the greatest admiration.

| Permalink


Post a comment