Desiree Wood, Truck Driver & Organizer

Desiree Wood, a truck driver, stands in front of her truck. She is wearing sunglasses and her shirt reads, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History."

Desiree Ann Wood is a truck driver, worker organizer, and the founder of REAL Women in Trucking and Truckers Emergency Assistance Responders. 

Truck driving used to be a path to the middle class. Now it’s one of the most exploitative industries. I’ve never worked in any other industry where an employer will just leave a worker by the side of the road with no money and no way to get home.

I went into truck driving in 2007. Unlike most truck drivers, I was able to pay out of pocket to do a training program to get my Commercial Drivers License. But I saw how many of my fellow students ended up in debt because some CDL schools own loan companies that offer high interest tuition financing to new truck drivers, and the schools are also the ones who place us with our first trucking jobs.

Some of the schools even get kickbacks to steer us to one carrier or another regardless of whether it is a good fit.

After you finish the program you’re sent to drive for a self-insured starter company that will hire someone with no experience. They take students with just a few weeks of training and then put us on trucks to do “team driving” with a trainer who generally has the student doing the night driving while they sleep.  If you’re team driving, the truck never stops except for fuel and between loads.

New drivers are put in unsafe situations partnered with a trainer who is a complete stranger, sharing a tiny space together, and putting our lives in the hands of someone we’re trusting to know when to pull over if the road is icy or when there is fog. The time with the trainer can be from 35 to 45 days but in many of these types of starter companies they also require a second phase of training with a co-driver – usually with another student with only a few days or months more experience. This can be a requirement for up to 6 months.

There are a lot of incidents of violence, sexual harassment, and assault in team driving.

I did team driving for 6 months and had some terrible experiences. I was put on a truck with guys who sexually harassed me, with someone with severe untreated mental health issues, and with someone who threw all my stuff out of the truck in the middle of the desert.

Even though I was a W2 worker and treated as an employee at that time, there was still a lot of sketchy stuff going on, including wage skimming, my tuition reimbursement not being paid to me, and bonuses not being paid out to many of the drivers I worked with.

By that time I was blogging on the internet about all my experiences. I told my company I was going to go on TV to expose the exploitation and I did. I was interviewed by Dan Rather just a few months later. I’d seen how other drivers who spoke out like I did got blacklisted and starved out of trucking work. But I refused to quit.

In 2010, I fell and shattered my knee. Thank goodness I was still a W2 employee then, because I was able to get workers’ compensation. I stayed for a few more months but then had to quit because my knee hurt too bad.

When I was ready to go back to work, I looked for jobs on Craigslist and Indeed. That’s where all the small “outlaw” companies posted jobs. These so-called “outlaw” companies use 1099 independent contractor status to shield them from accountability–because 1099 workers don’t have access to workers’ compensation and other protections.

A lot of people in trucking think they’re saving money in taxes working as independent contractors. But I know that’s not true, plus you’re working without protections.

I found a driving gig on craigslist with an outlaw company, and ended up not getting paid what I was owed. As a 1099 worker, I didn’t have any recourse. That was a common thing that happened to drivers – we’d get stiffed on pay and end up working for free.

There are so many horror stories about these outlaw companies. They will have cops come and evict a driver from the truck and leave them on the street if they can’t finish a run because they needed a night of sleep or because they stopped when road conditions were unsafe.

To get out of brutal work situations, a lot of truckers try to lease or buy our own rig. From day one, the trucking schools indoctrinate us that one day we’ll be owner-operators running our own businesses, but what really happens is we just end up being misclassified workers stuck in debt with huge lease payments or loans to pay off to large trucking companies.

There are all these lease-to-purchase programs where a driver can go to a company and get a truck with no money down and no credit check. We pay for everything out of pocket – insurance, gas, tires. But the trucks aren’t really ours.

We can’t modify a leased truck to make it more comfortable to sleep in. A driver can’t take the truck somewhere else to haul our own loads – the trucks can only be used to haul for the company. The truth is that lease and lease-to-purchase drivers are misclassified workers, not independent business owners.

After I started speaking out about my experience as a woman trucker, other women truckers began to reach out to me and share their stories. There were so many incidents of sexual assault on the job and no one was doing anything about it.

There was a women’s trucking organization funded by the companies and we went to them and demanded that they take action but they didn’t want to do anything. Their president actually testified against women in sexual assault cases.

When I saw they had no intention of dealing with this we decided to start our own organization – REAL Women in Trucking, now a 501(c)(6) trade association. We started as an informal protest group and in 2013 we became official.

Then, in 2019, we started our second organization for drivers who had been stranded by their employers called the Truckers Emergency Assistance Responders (TEAR), a 501(c)(3) charity and mutual aid group. We’ve seen companies come and take a lease truck back from a driver because they got sick on the job and abandon the driver in the middle of nowhere, sick with no way to get home.

As President of Truckers Emergency Assistance Responders, I get calls from people who are stranded in Colorado but live in Montana, who don’t have money for a bus ticket to go home. Drivers have no recourse whatsoever because they’re treated as independent contractors and the company can just hire a replacement the next day.

There was a driver working for an “outlaw” company who got pneumonia. The company hired another driver to keep the truck moving and just left the driver at a truck stop and didn’t even pay her.

Sometimes a driver will call us after sleeping on the streets for a few days after being abandoned. I’ve talked to grown men, sobbing and hopeless. We send them money to get a uhaul or a bus ticket to get them and their dog home.

You shouldn’t be able to just dump your worker. I don’t know any other industry where this happens. It should be illegal, but it’s not.

Trucking is set up so that the big corporations at the top are shielded from responsibility. It’s no accident. Billion dollar companies like Amazon don’t care who is moving their goods or how we are being treated as long as the goods get to their destination as quickly as possible in the cheapest possible way. At the end of the day it’s about meat in the seat. That’s how it feels as a driver.

Our two organizations are made up of truck drivers. We know all about driving. But we had to learn about organizing. It’s hard and we’re still learning, but we’re proud of what we’ve done so far. And we’re going to keep on fighting to change this industry, and make sure the companies calling the shots are accountable to the people who drive their profits.

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