The Quiet Port is Logistics’ Nightmare

Dispatch #2 from Charmaine’s ethnography of a container ship comes to us from the port of Tacoma, where the ship is currently experiencing severe delays. Continue to follow the Ever Cthulhu with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.

Source: author

Source: author

It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”

There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.

The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.

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Pinkwashing Apple

The gays, we love our Mac toys – and now it seems that our conspicuous consumption of such has paid off: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has come out gay. And we are never going to hear the end of it. The hyperbole has been extra-ordinary. He is, in short, the new messiah: “Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives.” That, from Human Rights Campaign (HRC) – the same people who also think same sex marriage will dissolve homophobia and cause the LGBTs to be treated equally. Clearly, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on. How should we navigate it? Well, we have an excellent guide over at A Paper Bird. Scott Long, who authors the must read blog on “sex, rights and the world”, has written a “medium length read” on the matter, and you really should read all of it. Here’s a few highlights (but go on, read it in full on your IOS device when time permits!)


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The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott

Academics in pre-1992 universities who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will tomorrow be commencing a marking boycott in response to a planned attack by employers on our USS pension scheme.

By any reasonable measure, and despite losses suffered during the global financial crisis (GFC), USS is in good financial health, persistently taking in much more in contributions than it pays out to retirees. However, the arbitrary valuation method favoured by the UK Pensions Regulator – which has an interest in a highly conservative approach, to avoid employers running schemes down then leaving the regulator to carry the can – perversely shows the scheme in deficit. The ridiculous nature of the assumptions behind this valuation have been well explained elsewhere, as has the mendacity of Universities UK, the employers’ association, in using data misleadingly. Put simply, the claim that USS is unsustainable is based on the scenario of all contributing universities simultaneously ceasing to pay into the scheme, e.g. as a result of bankruptcy. By any reasonable measure, the scheme is not in serious difficulty in the short to medium term. Nonetheless, the employers have seized on the valuation to demand radical changes to USS, which will result in a cut in pensions of up to 27%. This follows changes imposed by the employers in 2011, which closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, put new staff onto a vastly inferior ‘career average’ scheme (which was even worse than the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS), which is used in secondary, further and post-1992 higher education institutions), and shifted the burden of contributions from the employers to employees. It also follows years of minimal or zero pay increases, such that in the years since 2009, real pay has fallen by about 13% nationally and 17% in London.

Given this context, it is obvious that employers are seizing the opportunity of the perverse USS valuation to further cut staff costs. Insofar as the scheme faces difficulties because of the GFC, this represents yet another shunting of the costs inflicted by hyper-capitalism onto workers. And insofar as universities are trying to cut staff costs because of vast reductions in the public subsidy to higher education, it represents yet another indirect effect of austerity, which is again about socialising the costs of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions.

At stake in this industrial action is not just the fate of our pensions, but of our trade union. The marking boycott is just the latest in a recurrent spate of industrial action over pay and conditions, including on pensions in 2011 and pay in 2013/14. This time around, 78% voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike, on a 45% turnout – the highest since UCU’s formation in 2006, though still disappointingly low, given the stakes. However, each period of industrial strife was  botched by UCU’s national leadership, leaving the union progressively weaker. The earlier action on pensions was lost: despite some minor concessions from employers, they successfully rammed through changes to USS. The UCU Left grouping rightly warned that accepting this would only encourage the employers to come back for more later – as they are now doing. On pay, UCU itself declared that the principle of national collective bargaining – the union’s main raison d’etre – was at risk: UCU’s rejection of miserly annual pay offers had repeatedly been ignored, and employers were increasingly departing from the national pay scale and trying to tempt UCU branches into local-level settlements.

Yet, a comprehensive strategy on escalating industrial action, democratically determined by the union’s Higher Education conference, was simply ignored by the leadership. Continue reading

The Wages of Sin

Scrooge McDuck

The Times Higher reports stockholder relief. The fears of investors in pre-eminent parasites Reed Elsevier – that profits would be undermined by the move to academic open access – have been dissipated. Normal business is more-or-less resumed, thanks to the rise of hybrid publication models in the UK. That is, the combination between pay-to-publish that makes journal articles immediately available to all on the one hand and repositories for drafts and embargoed versions which preserve library subscription income on the other. In 2011, says the report [1], it looked like the push for widespread and substantial open access (rather than the soft version we’ve ended up with) might undermine the kind of market dominance that produces operating profits of 32%. Indeed, they expected Elsevier’s profit margins to fall by over a fifth in the face of full open access. But by September this year share prices were outperforming expectations.

The analysts write revealingly about the threat: “political intervention both in Europe and the US would force a shift to full Open Access journals, with negative consequences on the economics of Elsevier”. Revealing, too, on the concessions made to corporate publishers and divergent national policies. Despite more than a decade of agitation, debate, and now government mandates, “the rise of Open Access appears to inflict little or no damage on leading subscription publishers” for reasons that are obvious enough, should we care to notice them. Embargo periods and other restrictions protect profits, and so subscription levels remain high. Moreover, this manifestation of openness “may in fact be adding to profits”, because double dipping people.

The new reality is that we have two mutually reinforcing business models. Publishers can now add those Article Processing Charges (APCs) – many of which will be funded by the public purse – to their already bountiful subscription income. Unsurprising, then, that the stock performance of Reed Elsevier and Wiley continues to a grow at a neat pace. The future risk – so far as there is one – comes not from a revolution in publishing, but from library funding shortfalls caused by potential trouble in the economy at large.

Elsevier Profits 2011-2014

Source: Berstein Research, ‘Reed Elsevier: Goodbye to Berlin’, 24 September 2014

So open access is growing “in theory” but not in substance, which is to say, not in a way that realigns academic publishing. Continue reading

Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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The Marking Boycott And Its Aftermath

Justice League Super Hero Strike

In the face of a UK higher education marking boycott due to start in 11 days time, universities have come forth with a new pay offer. Having unilaterally imposed a 1% rise (read: real terms cut) for 2013/14, they are now proposing 2% for 2014/15, with a small bonus for those on the lowest band to bring them up to a living wage level (at Sussex, that’s an increase on the existing annual pay of £13,621). A consultative ballot is open to union members, and the boycott is delayed. It seems likely that there will be appetite for the deal, given the general tone of despondency and how drained staff are by repeated small scale actions and by mounting work pressures. There had, after all, been doubts that a boycott could compete with aggressive tactics from management (including threats to deduct full pay from anyone who participated in the boycott).

We might be emboldened by this concession from UCEA (the employers’ association). It shows, as more ‘militant’ elements had predicted, that greater returns would be achieved with the threat of a marking boycott than with all the 2-hour and single day strikes put together.[1] A first offer, before the boycott has even begun. Could we not win more than these peanuts (only just a real terms increase, following five cuts in a row, going by Consumer Price Index)?

Sort of.

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Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work

Once a French neologism, precarity is now a household name describing in equal measure the fate of low-wage, part-time holders of bullshit jobs, seasonal and migrant workers, creative entrepreneurs of the self, “graduates with no future,” foreclosed homeowners, debtors and increasingly even segments of the salaried bourgeoisie. At its most basic, a term for the economic uncertainty and existential angst associated with the dissolution of fixed employment, precarity also suggests the disintegration of stable societal bonds, occupational identities, social protections and a sense of entitlement and belonging characteristic of the old proletariat. In short, then, precarity is the experiential dimension of the crisis of the society of work dating back to the 70s and 80s.

Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Mural 1923

Increasingly advanced production methods, introduced since the 70s to tame shop-floor insubordination as well as reap the untapped potentials of global competition, have caused a decline in growth rates, which no amount of privatization, financialization and austerity measures has been able to make up for since. Andrew Kliman and others have argued that it is this real crisis in capitalist productivity that lies at the heart of the current slump, and not simply unrestrained financial gluttony, as the more short-termist analysis offer. As capitalist production develops, machines replace people and the rate of profitability, which is given by the human labor theory of value, drops, causing sluggish investment and slow growth. This is essentially Marx’s theory of economy crisis, aka the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but also a story we should know by now from Autonomist accounts about the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (Hardt and Negri) or from profit extraction to rent-becoming-profit (Christian Marazzi), and from David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.

If we shift the scale of our focus from capital to labor, though, we see that the crisis of capitalist productivity is, in fact, a crisis of work or a crisis of a society built around work as the only legitimate point of access for income, status and citizenship rights. Again, Marx is instructive here: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Socially necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (through things like automation, outsourcing, and financialization) at the same time that human participation in paid work continues to remain our only measure and source of wealth. Work doesn’t disappear as a result. It becomes fragmented, devalued, and wasteful, ceasing to provide a social identity or a collective language of experience.


Precarity is a word for our time. It describes the slow disintegration of the historic bond between capitalism, democracy and the welfare state. But it also entails a rallying cry to reverse this situation. Continue reading