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”.

Scores of ships wait in an anchorage off the coast because the port of Oakland is at full capacity.

Scores of ships wait in an anchorage off the coast because the port of Oakland is at full capacity.

Chasing Giants

In truth, wider structural problems pervade the shipping industry. A massive shortage and mismanagement of truck chassis has prevented the much needed frames from reaching the right places at the right times. The deplorable working conditions of truck drivers who cannot make a living wage has led to a shortage of a port-wide trucking pool, leading to personnel shortages that have slowed down the delivery of containers to distribution centres inland. Rail car delays have slowed the movement of containers from docks to more distant locations. These setbacks have led to container terminals reaching their storage capacities, but these factors barely scratch the surface of the current logistics crisis.

“The problem”, the chief engineer tells me as we sip on tepid instant coffee at breakfast, “is that everyone wants to build bigger and bigger ships. They cannot stop themselves. One builds a big ship, the other wants to catch up. On and on it goes.” In fact, ports worldwide are only just beginning understand the impact of this growing presence of mega-ships. Terminals originally built to discharge cargo from an earlier era of ship sizes (5,000 TEUs and below) are now struggling to handle cargo from ships that in 2005, had twice, and now in 2015, four times those carrying capacities with the recent delivery of the CSCL Globe, currently the world’s largest, that can carry a massive 19,000 TEUs. Of course, explains the chief engineer, “the thing is that with bigger ships, the number of ports you can call at are becoming lesser and lesser”.

But while shipping companies are racing to build the biggest mega-ships to drive down their unit costs, most ports – even the largest ones such as Los Angeles-Long Beach – are ill equipped to handle these mammoths efficiently. In 2013, the port of LA completed a 10-year, $370 million Main Channel Deepening Project that lowered basin depths from 45 to 53-feet to handle the introduction of larger vessels. Hundreds of cranes are being raised by as much as 30 feet to work the latest generation of mega-ships. And $1 billion has been dedicated towards replacing the port of Long Beach’s Gerald Desmond Bridge to accommodate the larger ships that pass underneath it. All ports fear being replaced by some other quicker passage, so they invest billions to remain competitive. With the much-anticipated opening of the newly expanded Panama Canal in 2016, the west coast is scrambling to ensure that ships will not be rerouted to the east coast ports.

There is an odd, god-like desire to manipulate space in all of this, terraforming land to create new terminals and ports in some places, blowing up islands to make way for ships in others, slicing land open to create waterways, letting the earth’s open sores bleed at massive costs to human and animal habitats, all for the faster transaction time. “It’s a self-made crisis, really”, says the captain, shaking his head. And so it goes. Massive infrastructural developments chase giant ships, and ports have come to epitomise the intensification and expansion of capital’s supply lines in their physical congealing of sovereignty and capitalism.

In an otherwise empty port of Tacoma, longshoremen wait at the dock to receive the mooring lines from the crew of the Ever Cthulhu.

In an otherwise empty port of Tacoma, longshoremen wait at the dock to receive the mooring lines from the crew of the Ever Cthulhu.

Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

I have twice observed the process of getting the ship safely to harbour from the bridge (the ship’s command centre) now, so for this arrival, I run down to the fore of the ship to watch the crew tossing out the mooring lines. As tugboats nudge the ship closer to the edge of the berth, I count five longshoremen waiting on the otherwise-empty waterfront. If you’ve ever tried tossing a line to someone on a pier to moor a little boat, imagine the same process working with six ropes, 3 inches in diameter and 300 meters long, made of thick woven plastic, being tossed ten stories down and across a stretch of water. A smaller lead rope is thrown out first. The OS (ordinary seaman, or the starting position on a ship’s deck crew) misses thrice, and has to reel the line back in each time to try again. The longshoremen below cuss at the crew, who cuss back. It takes almost fifteen minutes just to get the ropes safely to the waiting longshoremen below. They hoist them onto shore and haul them over the bollards. Then they leave. No other workers are here. For the rest of the day, the port is a shroud of silence. Any illusions I had about the synchronised machinery of the port swinging immediately into gear have disappeared. I take a deck chair to the bridge to sit in the sun and read.

A quiet port is logistics’ nightmare. As the Ever Cthulhu plods through its US ports of call, I realize that I am directly encountering the vulnerability of a supply chain that constantly faces the threat of disruption. Experiencing logistical life in this way has only confirmed for me that logistics is, as Alberto Toscano has recently put it, no more than a fantasy of full visibility, integral flexibility, and ultimately, control over supply chain flows.

This, then, is the Achilles heel of the logistics industry: Built on precisely-timed coordination between shippers and suppliers, the system is so vulnerable that what might have been a minor shock in the past today produces a domino effect that has worldwide echoes. Logistics relies on constant, uninterrupted flow. It is a system built on “just-in-time” networks of pull production and distribution, where supply replenishes in response to consumer demand in order to reduce the costs of standing inventories, bring products to market faster, and thereby accelerate the circulation of both commodities and the credit used to purchase them. Logistics circuits constantly face the threat of volatile interruptions, disruptions, and failures. In the perpetual race for larger, better, more automated, more innovative port and ship infrastructures, the spectacle of the technical sublime meets its other in week-long traffic jams on the Pacific Ocean.

In her brilliant The Deadly Life of Logistics, Deborah Cowen shows us that one of the most powerful transformations of the logistics revolution was that it allowed contemporary capitalism to assume the form of the supply chain, ordered not by the piecemeal management of individual firms, but by spatio-temporal logics that disaggregate the component parts of production and distribution so as to bring them back together within a complex spatial arrangement that stretches the factory across highly uneven economic and political domains. In other words, in order for the supply chain to flourish as a locus for profit maximization, logistics must be managed as a totality, or not at all.

The upshot of all this is that since sites of production can always be moved elsewhere, hyper-exploiting different sets of largely unorganized workers in the global south and undermining labour’s bargaining power in the global north, the logistics revolution is not only concerned with the movement of commodities, but also plays a critical role in controlling and undermining labour power. This is precisely why logistics workers have been scapegoated for the west coast’s recent congestion problems: rather than understanding ILWU contract negotiations as a fundamental exercise of workers’ rights and a necessary bargaining tool to safeguard their wages and benefits, mainstream media has instead screamed about the economic damage that these alleged slowdowns have caused, often neglecting the fact that port employers themselves, via the PMA, have falsely blamed on labour-related problems what are in fact larger infrastructural challenges in ports unable to sustain growing shipping volumes. To attribute larger structural problems to ‘challenges related to the labour force’, as the PMA’s last annual report alleged, has in fact allowed shipping companies to generate the appearance of crisis so as to garner support from both the public and politicians, driving the public’s ire instead towards those workers who move the world’s goods.

Stacking cranes in the port of Tacoma eliminate the need for trucks and forklifts, taking containers straight from where the cranes discharge them to their designated storage area in the terminal.

Stacking cranes in the port of Tacoma eliminate the need for trucks and forklifts, taking containers straight from where the cranes discharge them to their designated storage area in the terminal.

Labour and Automation

I have been taking all the extra time that the Ever Cthulhu has been stuck in ports to meet and talk to dockworkers. At the port of Oakland, I sat in a shuttle bus with broken doors on a seat held together with masking tape chatting with Shannon, a seventeen-year veteran of the ILWU. I asked Shannon why the PMA seems to have been blaming workers for the slowdowns. Pulling her gloves off in frustration, she said:

They want to put it on the ILWU anytime it comes to things like this, because it’s a joint operation between the employers and us, so if I can shift the blame over to someone else, that’s what I’ll do. So, that’s what they’re doing, and it takes the blame off the companies from the businesses that want whatever they have in those containers. They’re wondering, “why can’t I get my stuff?” And the companies want to put that on us.

In the grand scheme, it is not a problem for capital, always seeking ever-shorter transition times, to reroute its flows through other maritime passages. Ports are critical gateways to inland markets, but goods can always be relocated and moved elsewhere. As a symbol of how disruptions can threaten the supply chain system, then, the quiet port is logistics’ nightmare, but the particular quiet port generates a moment of crisis, allowing regional operators to capitalise on the fear of competition to generate major dollars for investment in automation and technology, which they require to compete with innovating ports elsewhere.

Labour, of course, is the inconvenient factor in all of this. Said one rather snarky marine transportation analyst: “The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” For terminal handlers and shipping companies, if automation can move cargo at least as efficiently as manual labour but at a fraction of the cost of high-priced longshore labour, terminals in the U.S. will eventually choose to replace humans with machines. Under this rubric, humans are the unreliable ‘challenge’ whose removal will allow managers to regulate the efficiency of container transport. For logistics, automation is stability, and therefore the threat of labour disruption, rather than read as an exercise of fundamental democracy, is seen in economic terms as an ‘inefficiency’. As Deborah Cowen (Deadly Life of Logistics, p. 80) puts it:

The use of labour disruptions as a means to quantify attacks on the supply chain follows directly from the prior move of positing global trade as vital to national security. It allows for the exchangeability of radically different acts and actors, which have in common only the threat they pose to smooth circulation. A legal act asserting workplace democracy, when viewed through the lens of supply chain security, is not just like an attack, it is an attack on the integrity of flows.

Configured in this way, labour struggles are depoliticised in the logistics narrative, stripped of their historical and political contexts, and reduced to a problem for the supply chain. Where smooth flow is king, even democratic contestation and political intervention can be read as a threat to be eliminated in the name of national security.

Shannon tells me that although companies want to get rid of the human factor, automated terminals have experienced great setbacks in implementation:

I just know that different terminals now, with their automated systems in play, it hasn’t proved a hundred percent positive. Things keep breaking down, they can’t figure out how to make things work. So I can’t say that it would be in their better judgment to put machines in place of humans, when they have Trapac in LA, which is automated, but they aren’t moving work. They can’t do it as fast as we do. They can’t, when it’s computerized. They’re running these containers through computerized systems right now. Every one of these numbers means something, but when they have a machine to talk to instead of the human being, it’s going to create problems. It’s a process of elimination, that’s what it is – and they are putting in more money to put broken machines into play than actually paying people.

Shannon’s account is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is her tacit recognition that the logistics network is – for the time being – being stymied in far more significant ways by its own internal problems than it is by organised political disruption. All over the world, terminals convinced that automation is the way to go have been experiencing similar setbacks: A surge of arrival delays in Hamburg last spring created massive backups when exporters continued to deliver containers to the port. In Rotterdam, the implementation of newly automated terminal systems caused weeks of severe congestion. And in October last year, Mumbai experienced a storm of delays when a terminal could not smoothly integrate a new crane operating system. For Shannon, as perhaps for many workers in this industry, the business management gurus who tout port automation as an inevitable eventuality of irrefutable economic sense have certainly not squared their technocratic expectations with the messy realities on the ground.

Gantry crane drivers are the 'quarterbacks' of longshore labor, but they have been in short supply, and the PMA has neglected to train more for the skilled operation.

Gantry crane drivers are the ‘quarterbacks’ of longshore labour, but they have been in short supply, and the PMA has neglected to train more for the skilled operation.

New Promises for International Solidarity?

At this point, it is important to distinguish between how one might think of the effects of automation on the restructuring of labour in factories (the traditional Marxist site for thinking the antagonistic relations of capitalist production) and logistics chains. We know from Marx that automation threatens living labour not only by directly replacing it with machines, but also by disciplining workers with the threat that automation – and thus job loss – presents. In the planetary scope of global supply chains, however, automation and technological innovation have not only restructured the labour force, but brought it into new geopolitical relation. Shipping companies are beginning to offshore the cognitive work of clerical planning (e.g. plotting the precise algorithms which determine which containers go where on a ship, and when), separating it by oceans from the manual labour of crane driving and intermodal transport, such that a clerical worker in Shenzhen might create the loading plan for a ship in Los Angeles, a captain on a ship receives directives from both the charterer in Germany and the shipping company in Taiwan, and so on and so forth.

On the one hand, then, the logistical chain has capitalised on work simplification and a division of labour which, as Adam Smith described long ago, separates conception from execution, substantially monopolising cognitive labour within the hands of specialists while relegating relatively unskilled labour to manual, routinised work. On the other, these technologies have also brought into relation previously disparate and unconnected parts of the supply chain into one highly integrated (though nevertheless uneven) system at an unseen scale, constituting “the very possibility for the transnational intermodal integration of diverse forms of work and infrastructures” (Cowen, p. 113). Some scholars see this global integration as potentially promising, suggesting that logistics workers can capitalise on their strategic positions along the key nodal points of global trade to actively pursue international solidarity within the supply chain in ways that were not possible before.

This promise of a new form of international solidarity may seem optimistic, but we should never forget that critical theory alone cannot achieve this goal; actively organising around it can. While on the Ever Cthulhu, I have seen how easily rifts between various groups of workers can arise. The officers and crew on the ship, wanting for more information about why they are being made to wait in the US ports, have assumed that it is the fault of the longshore workers who “get paid so much more than we do, yet are always causing trouble!” After another morning during which the port superintendent reports that cargo loading operations will be cut in half, the chief mate opines: “these workers should be afraid.” He cites the opening of the Panama Canal that may redirect Chinese imports/exports to the east coast, the comparatively ‘superior’ efficiency of ports in Canada and Mexico, and the increasing automation of terminals that will “maybe replace these guys, finally”. Perhaps understandably, the chief mate’s account is situated in a world where hierarchies and boundaries between management and workers facilitate the running of his ship, but it woefully misses recognition of the broader context of worker struggles, and the historically hard-fought battle of the ILWU to win the best standards, work practices and benefits in the nation.

As Peter Olney, retired organising director of the ILWU International noted in an excellent analysis of the 2002 ILWU lockout, the biggest challenge for the ILWU is not to resist the implementation of new technology so much as it is to organise within and without the jurisdiction: “Whether work is covered or not is not the issue; the issue is to organise”. Under the threat that the PMA will encroach on the union’s jurisdiction over the waterfront, Olney argues that the union should expand its notion of ‘longshore and warehouse’ work to the broader supply chain, since nothing prohibits the union from organising work that an arbitrator has ruled to be outside its jurisdiction. In this sense, the most formidable challenge for the ILWU in particular, and logistics labour in general, may well be to broaden the conception of longshore and warehousing work across the vast supply chain that has linked clerical, warehouse, trucking, drayage, and rail workers across a transnationally integrated-yet-differentiated network.

Solidarity, in other words, is not automatic. It must be built, and the challenge of doing so in an industry where different groups of workers only interact briefly before ships sail and crews rotate over and over again is formidable. Various groups have already begun this work. The Industrial Workers of the World are currently assessing how to better organise around supply chains and have launched a nation-wide UPS campaign toward this endeavour, the Workers Solidarity Alliance has launched an international solidarity campaign for better working conditions in Amazon?s Polish warehouses, and Empire Logistics, a research collaborative, is mapping the global supply chain in order to provide useful and accessible mapping data that can facilitate collective actions and solidarity among related struggles.

With their arms raised, gantry cranes sit idly at the dock on a foggy day without cargo operations at the port.

With their arms raised, gantry cranes sit idly at the dock on a foggy day without cargo operations at the port.

In a logistics industry constantly on roller skates, moving sites of distribution to intermodal facilities and ports all around the world, even workers at these crucial chokepoints are no longer ‘safe’ from the mendacities of capitalism. In shipping companies’ minds, automation mitigates the unpredictability of ‘the labour factor’, even though automating projects around the world have continually failed and created more problems than they have solved. In the narrow view, and in the short run, this all makes perfect sense for shipping companies. Employers, preoccupied with how to run things smoothly, continue to despair about the shortage of skilled workers, even as they have continued to automate. But that automation is being implemented into the circuit with great friction, causing far more delays than companies have anticipated. David Noble points out (albeit in a different context) the kicker in this feverish rush towards automation and technological revolution: “Thus, the shortage of skilled workers, engendered in part by automation itself, had now become the supreme justification for more automation. Before long, this inverted wisdom became gospel among managers throughout the industry”.

Yet, as Shannon noted in her last words before she drove off in the shuttle back to the terminal gate, workers have not lost their ability to fight:

We move a lot of weight, us workers, and we only get 1% of what these companies make here. Real talk, we keep the world running. Yet somehow people think we are the ones being unreasonable. Only, we’re not automatons. We’re people. We get hurt on the job all the time, we get killed, we get blown up. I’ve seen my friend’s leg sliced off from a cable that snapped. We’re not machines, and if the companies want to replace us with ones, we’re going to fight the battle all the way.

Lest we think that the burgeoning of logistical mega-structures auger the inevitable demise of worker power, we should remember that how and when technology becomes adopted and used is a deeply political question, not simply a technocratic one. The challenge for critical theorists must thus be to ask: what are the social forms and political challenges that condition and create contestations within the space of logistics circulation? And how may they be mobilised towards building new possibilities for global solidarity? Nothing, of course, is inevitable. As I write this, the Tacoma terminal is coming to a halt at 5pm instead of continuing to run its operations late into the night. The lights of the gantry cranes have shut off, the ship is wrapping into darkness, and the containers lying in rows all around me will not be delivered to their destinations at the expected times. There is, perhaps perversely, a comfort I find in this.


6 thoughts on “The Quiet Port is Logistics’ Nightmare

  1. What a fantastic read.

    Really liked this:
    “There is an odd, god-like desire to manipulate space in all of this, terraforming land to create new terminals and ports in some places, blowing up islands to make way for ships in others, slicing land open to create waterways, letting the earth’s open sores bleed at massive costs to human and animal habitats, all for the faster transaction time.”

    It reminded me of Sohn-Rethels’ description of abstract space-time in *Intellectual and Manual Labour*:
    “Time and space rendered abstract under the impact of commodity exchange are marked by homogeneity, continuity and emptiness of all natural and material content, visible or invisible (e.g. air). The exchange abstraction excludes every thing that makes up history, human and even natural history. The entire empirical reality of facts, events and description by which one moment and locality of time and space is distinguished from one another is wiped out. Time and space assume thereby that character of absolute historical timelessness and universality which must mark the exchange abstraction as a whole and each of its feature.” (48-49)


  2. This is such a marvelous combination of top-notch ethnography, beautifully written prose, such apt links to other sites, authors and materials, and all woven together with such verve and readability. I enjoyed the first two posts and am so looking forward to the rest: I’m actually happy that the 30-day trip may extend to a longer one thanks to the delays. Keep up the fabulous work Charmaine!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating stuff – these deep water ports are linked to one another by the constant movement of ships between them – when there is a jam in one port it is like a clot in an artery, and every port in line suffers accordingly. I didn’t really think about that until I read your piece. So informative – thank you.


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