Biden Pushes to Increase the Exploitation of Workers to Solve Supply Chain Problems

container ships backed up off Southern California
Enormous backup of cargo ships off the coast of Southern California. (Credit: Erik Olsen/Popular Science)

There are nearly one hundred enormous cargo ships backed up off shore at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 40% of U.S. imports. Some ships have been waiting to dock and unload since August 23. And one of these idle ships was the likely cause of a large oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in Southern California, as the ship’s massive anchor may have struck an underwater oil pipeline.

This backup has spread to other ports throughout the U.S., and has helped worsen a general shortage of all types of goods from computer chips to books to toasters to shoes to machinery and large equipment — basically every category of consumer and industrial goods. And these shortages have led to record-breaking price increases, which have skyrocketed living costs while many working class families are already struggling.

A number of issues have led to this backup of cargo ships, ranging from a shortage of truck drivers to move the cargo, to international factory closures that lead to shipping delays, and port shut downs due to COVID outbreaks.

Last week, President Joe Biden, worried about his tumbling approval rating, tried to intervene and force the warehouse and dock workers who unload the ships at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach to move to 24/7 shifts, and the union leaders of the Teamsters and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have agreed.

But this is hardly a solution. According to an ILWU spokesperson, there has been nothing in the union contract that prohibited 24/7 shifts:

“It’s important to let people know that our contracts allow the employers and the terminal operators to work 24 hours a day. … So it’s not something that is brand new.”

The problem has been that Port management has refused to hire more workers to staff an extra shift. This wasn’t a major problem for shipping before the pandemic but now that there is such a backlog, the absence of that extra shift is making things worse.

But Port management still doesn’t want to pay out the funds to hire more workers, despite record volume and profits in the shipping industry. For example, the seven largest shipping carriers (including Maersk, COSCO and Hapag-Lloyd) reported more than $23 billion in profits in the first half of this year, compared with just $1 billion in the same period last year. And total volume at the Port of Los Angeles has increased by 27% from the previous year.

Instead of increased hiring, the plan is to get the work done with increased overtime. In other words, the brilliant plan agreed to by Biden and the leadership of the Teamsters and the ILWU is to make already overworked dock workers do even more work to unload record levels of cargo, only putting their safety at greater risk.

But prior to the latest agreement, Port management has not wanted to pay out the additional costs of overtime to staff an additional shift. Like many companies during the pandemic, they have tried to take advantage of labor shortages by squeezing more work out of fewer workers. Even if overtime is paid, it is very unlikely the backlog will be addressed without hiring additional workers.

The problem at the ports goes way beyond not having 24 hour shifts. Most U.S. ports still rely on individual trucking instead of trains to move the large containers out of the ports. And for the past several months there has been a severe shortage of truck drivers to meet the growing backlog.

Part of Biden’s plan has also been to secure pledges from Walmart, Amazon, FedEx, UPS, Target, Home Depot and others to also increase shift times towards 24/7 to move more goods. But, here too, squeezing more out of an already overworked workforce only increases risks to workers’ safety. And it is unlikely that any of this will be enough to change things very quickly.

Under the plan, the goal is to process and unload 3,500 extra containers during the night each week. But even if this works, it would still take months to deal with the hundreds of thousands of containers already sitting on the docks and the ships off shore. Some experts expect the backlog to last until 2023.

Prior to Biden’s latest plan, for weeks the ports were already operating at 20 hours each day with four hours for cleaning and refueling, and the backlog was still growing. In the words of one truck driver interviewed by CBS news in Los Angeles, “It’s not going to solve anything … Even if you’re there 24 hours working it’s gonna be even worse. Why? Because it’s gonna be more people coming in the terminal who are just gonna sit there. It’s just ridiculous.”

This supply chain crisis is just one more example of how dysfunctional the system of capitalism is — this system can’t even organize the basic production and distribution of goods. And all the Biden administration has to propose is to increase the exploitation of workers to make up for the complete incompetence of the ruling class.