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How Unpaid Labor is Central to Supply Chains


The entire modern supply chain system is based on exploiting as many workers as possible in their mania to maximize profit in just-in-time deliveries. That unquestionably includes the largely Asian workforces that make this stuff. But even in the United States, the system is predicated on finding ways to screw over labor. What we are now seeing with this supposed supply chain crisis is workers saying, yeah I don’t think so. This is what is happening in the trucking industry. Despite the Teamsters being a strong union, there are legions of non-union truck drivers out there. The independent contracting model promises the freedom of the road and the individual ability to do what you want (see the appeal of the trucker in 70s movies and the broader culture). But in fact, workers get the short end of the stick when they don’t work together. That’s what has happened for years in the trucking industry. This Bloomberg article is a good entrypoint into what’s going on. Basically, the whole system has created a norm that truckers sit around for hours waiting to get their trucks loaded and they are not paid for this. So it’s not real surprising that a lot of truckers aren’t dying to go back to this.

Trucking is an industry long beset by grueling hours and declining pay. Few know those hardships better than port truck drivers.

Port truckers are typically independent contractors, without the benefits and protections of unionized transport sectors or even major companies with shipping divisions, like Amazon.com Inc. Their jobs require them to line up for hours to pick up cargo, and they’re paid only when they move it. 

“The port truck driver, for decades now, has basically been the slack adjuster in the whole system,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist with the University of Pennsylvania who studies labor markets and supply chains. The entire system, he said, is built around free labor from truck drivers as they wait for containers. 

The Teamsters union says Biden should try to encourage organization of port drivers so that they can bargain for better pay and benefits. 

But the president has instead focused on trying to produce new drivers by streamlining licensing. The White House says an average of 50,000 commercial drivers licenses and learners permits have been issued each month this year, 14% above 2019 and far above 2020 levels, when the pandemic shuttered training programs.

I mean, it’s not really Biden’s job per se to do the job of the Teamsters for them in organizing these truckers. But whatever the administration is saying about new truckers, the reality is that all this stuff in the global economy is backed up because truck drivers aren’t real interested in unpaid labor. Can you blame them? Any system predicated on stealing labor and time from workers is an unjust one. Thus, welcome to the New Gilded Age.

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