The Long Haul from Deregulation: Truck Drivers and Social Capital in the Louisiana Oilpatch

Article excerpt

Southern Louisiana has played host to the oil industry for nearly a century. While much of the contemporary activity is offshore, the communities of southern Louisiana provide labor and support to this vast enterprise. Truck-based transportation is one component of this support industry. In the past, the trucking industry meshed with the social and familial networks of the region, but state-level deregulation has rendered these connections inert. Based on interviews with truck drivers and truck company owners, this paper maps the historic importance of these social networks and gauges the impact of deregulation in social, rather than economic, terms. While the paramount impact of deregulation has been significant losses of power and control by local communities, the aftermath of these policy changes has opened up the trucking industry to new ethnic, geographic, and gender groups.

Key words: truck drivers, oil industry, social capital, Louisiana, Acadiana

The bayous and marshland of southern Louisiana host one of the largest agglomerations of industry in North America. Unprecedented quantities of oil were discovered at Spindletop, Texas, in 1901, and after encompassing much of East Texas in an oil boom, the nascent American oil industry moved east into Louisiana. Over the intervening decades it built a vast empire of derricks, pipe, and platforms on the wet marshland of Acadiana-the 22 southernmost parishes of the state-whose identity remains secured to the French-Canadian ancestry of generations past. The submerged landscape of the oilpatch, as the men and women of southern Louisiana refer to it, fostered the technological innovations that eventually led drilling companies offshore to open water and, later, beyond the continental shelf. Vestiges of this industry are still active inland, but in the contemporary oilpatch, the action is offshore.

These offshore actions depend on a robust inland support network. Onshore concerns are strung along the winding bayou roads that cross the region, and although the industry coagulates in towns like Morgan City, Houma, and New Iberia, the vast scope of this decentralized industry is difficult to perceive. So little dry land is to be had in southern Louisiana that the industry was always dispersed.

From the earliest years of the industry, trucks and truck drivers played an essential role in transporting heavy equipment among the many links in the chain of production. Thanks to them, pipe moves between the industrial yards and docks, drill bits sent in from offshore for repair are transported to machine shops, pumps and motors are carried from inland businesses to loading points. Since the 1950s, this transportation industry has been configured around the owneroperator who, in turn, works for a trucking company. A description of this business model, and the local social structures that supported it, will be presented in some detail below; for now, it will suffice to say that deregulation, which took effect in 1996, had a catastrophic impact upon the income of oilpatch truckers. Even more importantly, deregulation broke the social template of the trucking business by changing the way people worked and related to one another as businessmen and entrepreneurs. At the current juncture, the social impacts of deregulation have been as devastating as its economic impacts.

Background

This paper seeks to address several gaps in our collective knowledge. First, it describes a group of people and a section of the U.S. industrial structure that have received little attention beyond an occasional article in the local newspaper. The truck drivers of Acadiana were not a part of the spate of attention truckers received in the 1980s. At the turn of that decade, the federal government moved to deregulate interstate trucking, and a variety of studies both preceded and followed this policy change (Glaskowsky, O'Neil, and Hudson 1976; Owen 1988; Glaskowsky 1986; Childs 1985; Dempsey 1989; Perry 1986; Davis 1980). …