In recent years, a number of texts have suggested that containerisation and the globalisation of production have transformed the logistics sector into a space of enormous potential ‘power’ for labour and social struggles.
As Alimahomed-Wilson and Ness explain in the introduction to their edited collection Choke Points, nodal points in logistics networks, such as ports and airports, can be targeted through occupations or strikes to create economic blockages, whether by workers or social movements. At the same time, however, other scholars have called attention to the fact that choke points also appear to be laboratories for company and state surveillance, control and security measures, in addition to terrains in which national labour law has been changed or undermined. Hubs of global logistics networks are subject to strong regulation: security checks, militarisation, camera surveillance, and in some cases, the right to dismiss employees without notice for security reasons, potentially undermining the possibility for transformative disruptive action in these nodes.
With this contradictory discourse about choke points in mind, I began field research with workers in ports and airports in Brazil and Portugal. I was guided by the question of whether and how it might be possible to (re-)organise trade union structures and combat precarious employment in these spaces despite increasing surveillance and security measures.
My analysis draws from 60 semi-structured interviews in Portugal and Brazil and participant observation of a strike in the Brazilian Port of Santos. Contrary to my expectations when I began the project, the possibility that increased surveillance and control have led to a restriction of industrial action or protest has not been borne out by the data. Instead, the issue of ‘security’ was raised repeatedly in a very different sense: the physical integrity of workers both inside and outside of the workplace.
In English, there is a distinction between security and safety. In Portuguese, there is only one word for both: “segurança.” When I asked in the interview, “What role does security play?,” the question was always answered in relation to physical safety and not in relation to the increasing surveillance of choke points or workplaces.
The interviewees from both the port (engaged in cargo handling and lashing) and the airport (engaged in luggage handling and assisting people with disabilities) insisted that it is not surveillance but safety and the precarious working conditions they face that have the greatest impact on their working lives and ability to engage industrial action. For example, workers would often make unsolicited reference to the last fatal accident in their workplace.
Precarious working conditions, and in particular, unsafe working conditions, have an impact on family structures as well because the physical risks at work both in the port and at the airport represent a permanent threat for family members to lose their partners or to have to increase care work due to injuries. In addition, flexible working hours may make family life impossible or only allow the partner to have limited access to permanent work, because of a lack of public infrastructure for childcare and other forms of care work.
Precarious and dangerous working conditions are therefore a double-edged sword when it comes to organizing. On the one hand, they lead to an enormous workload and concern for the workers’ own physical integrity. In order to minimize this burden, many colleagues initially tend to seek individual help by taking antidepressants, not getting organised, “staying below-the-radar,” not accumulating even more stress and further burdening themselves and their families, some of whom are very dependent on their own wages.
However, if organizers and trade unions succeed in placing the problems of health and safety and precarious employment at the centre of disputes, the possibilities for successful organizing are substantially increased.
In other words, while I expected the interviewees to speak about wage increase and job security, they spoke primarily about social reproduction and health and safety questions. While I expected the obstacle for them to unionize would be the growing surveillance of choke points by the state and companies, they spoke instead about the increase of accidents, mental illness and isolation in their job, due to automation.
In order to explain these findings, my research project employs a theoretical approach drawn from social reproduction feminism (SRF) which centers on body politics at work and the forms of struggles and alliances that are linked to them. SRF suggests looking at capitalism through the lens of the worker who is produced “in a double sense, through biological reproduction and as bearers of labour power.”
The history of capitalism as a history of class struggles is, of course, also a history of biopolitical and corporal battery. The constant development of the forces of production ushers in a constant reorganization of laboring bodies. This in turn impacts workers’ possibilities for forming alliances and their forms of struggles.
As Joseph Fracchia has pointed out, the reinvention and reorganization of the capitalist mode of production is limited to the “boundaries of human beings,” even though these physical boundaries are constantly expanded, for example, by prolonging the working day, forcing workers to carry heavier loads, consuming cheap junk food, drinking spoiled water, etc. The ultimate limit of the physical and mental exploitation of the working body is full disability (meaning the inability to work and reproduce oneself without support), or death.
Workers have to commute long(er) distances and work longer hours, leaving them with very little reproductive labor time for themselves. This dynamic therefore requires new ways of organizing family, food, education, health etc, giving rise to new industries, such as mass production of meat, fast-food chains, and delivery services.
To understand these dynamics, a Marxist perspective on the body in the labor process and industrial action is essential. It must be considered very concretely in relation to each working sector in order to understand how the relationship between body and work — and the constant attempt of the capitalist system to shift boundaries, including the physical boundaries of the human body (i.e., less sleeping time, more mental pressure, worse and cheaper food, more physically challenging labor) — affects the ability of workers to resist and organize in specific instances.
Logistics not only enables the production and circulation of capital, but also feeds back into the sphere of reproduction. It does this first of all by making labor available through transporting workers from their households to various working places and back, as well as transporting necessary food and services to households, allowing them to reproduce the worker. In this sense, the logistics sector can be regarded as a bridge connecting the spheres of production and reproduction.
The inclusion of labor conditions and organisation is critical to our understanding of the process of accumulation of capital, but is often absent in studies of logistics, particularly in Management and History. The latter tend to treat motion as an abstract “driving force of progress” without considering the physical organisation of human bodies.
Furthermore, there is a tendency in some studies to discuss the implementation of technical advancements as effectively independent miracles of some solitary genius, rather than as social, economic, political and corporeally experienced processes. However, the application of new technical innovations, such as railways, broadband, air travel, etc. on a broader national or even global scale, directly impacts labor conditions and the governing of bodies and reproduction.
By expanding and improving technology, the way in which labor is socially organised and the characteristics of this organisation (living in flats, commuting, access to health, education etc, and shift work, working hours, wages) are remade again and again. This dynamic undermines the possibilities of stability, tranquility and security and leads to an immense degradation of laboring bodies who become appendages to this development.
The physical materiality of space and the body of workers in this process, however, appear as constant limits, and thus contradictions, to the process of capital accumulation and the growing speed and volume of commodity transport. These physical limits and the constant attempt of capitalists to overcome them therefore leads to social and labor conflicts.
Both the restructuring of the logistics sector, on the one hand, and changes at the state level in Portugal and Brazil due to the economic crisis and a shift towards authoritarianism, respectively, on the other,– have impacted the organisation of work in the logistics sector and the reproduction of labor. Both the bodies of airport and port workers, as well as their forms of resistance, have been affected.
By focusing my research on the laboring body from a materialist perspective, I seek to bring in a third perspective to the debate on logistics choke points, that so far oscillates between a euphoric framing as a “magic bullet” to trade union movement revitalization, on the one hand, and a dysphoric framing as laboratories for company and state surveillance, control and security measures, on the other.
The physical integrity of workers and their bodies in logistics is linked to precarious and dangerous working conditions which can be seen as a double-edged sword when it comes to organizing, containing worker militancy in general, while at the same time greatly increasing the possibility of militant mass action when plausible opportunities arise to confront health and safety concerns. Hence, a focus on the laboring body not only provides an entry point to the development of a more sophisticated social theory of choke points and logistics but can provide important insights on organizing and strikes.
Anne Engelhardt is a PhD candidate at the University Kassel, Germany. Anne does research in Political Economy, Materialist State Theory, Logistics, Reproductive Rights, Health and Security Risks and their impact on the (working) body.
Image: Estivar (CC BY 2.0) Flickr