An Amazon delivery woman in New York, April 4, 2020. Photo: lev radin /

Liberating logistics: all power to the frontline workers

  • May 1, 2020

Work & Workers

May Day strikes are capping off a global wave of labor action through which logistic workers have asserted themselves against capital in the face of a pandemic.

This May Day, a broad coalition of workers from firms in the logistics sector ranging from Amazon and Walmart to Instacart and Wholefoods are staging a mass walkout. They are rising up on International Workers’ Day to demand improved health and safety on the job in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, where they have all too often been hung out to dry by employers and states.

COVID-19’s grim spread has left few facets of global economic and social life untouched. The pandemic has forced us to view the old realities of life in a new light, in which the stark contrast between different conditions of labor have become glaringly apparent.

While a privileged few can sit out the crisis working relatively uninterrupted from home, many more have seen their hours reduced or slashed by wary employers, or forced to work under dangerous conditions for low pay because their work has been deemed “essential” to society. Over-burdened and under-protected, many of those who have continued to work during the pandemic have staunchly elevated the importance of labor action.

As COVID-19 makes its way around the world — often along globalized routes of trade — waves of strikes and direct action have followed in its wake. From hospitals in Hong Kong to supermarket chains in Belgium, the labor unrest unleashed by the coronavirus crisis has shaken nearly every sector of the global economy, especially industries deemed essential during the pandemic. In many cases this has helped to recast public opinion regarding the value of jobs that were previously dismissed as “dead end” or unimportant. Society might be slow to notice marketing managers taking a month or two off, but it is hard to argue against how dependent we are on the work of those who stock our grocery stores, prepare our food, care for our loved ones and keep our cities clean. Nor can we do without the oft-hidden labor of those who produce, unload and deliver the goods we are so reliant on.

Though frontline workers have gained public support and appreciation for their supposedly “heroic” efforts in the face of COVID-19, their essential function is rarely reflected in their paychecks. While some employers and governments have implemented emergency hazard pay provisions and bonuses, increased recognition and remuneration during the pandemic is not a given.

Germany is bringing in 80,000 Romanian seasonal farm laborers to pick asparagus in grueling conditions despite COVID-19 travel restrictions. While in a ghastly, if unsurprising highlight of capitalist resource mismanagement, the US is mulling lowering the wages of migrant farm workers to foster production while simultaneously destroying millions of pounds of perishable foods. At the same time, foodbanks are overrun with depressingly long lines. And safe working conditions are far from guaranteed due to a global shortage of personal protective equipment.

Fissures of labor struggles carving their way through an already stressed economic system do more than just highlight which jobs truly matter for society or the importance of workplace safety. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the logistics sector, where the coronavirus crisis has rendered us more dependent than ever on the smooth and safe delivery of essential goods. It is no surprise, then, that such a high number of strikes have appeared in this sector. This COVID-19-fueled workplace radicalization highlights just how critical this sector has become.

Though built on exploitation, the rise of global supply chain capitalism has in many ways empowered workers in key nodes along the supply chain. The systemic stress of the coronavirus crisis has thrown the capability of workers to put pressure not just on their bosses, or states, but on the entire economy, into stark relief.

This, along with increased opportunities for worldwide solidarity amongst workers afforded by today’s globalized economy, points to the possibility for truly transformative global labor action. Now, more than ever, is the time to exploit the glaring weak points in global capitalism.

The Amazonification of the economy

The worldwide systemic shock of the coronavirus crisis likely only unfolded at the extent and speed that it did due to the logistics revolution which began in the 1970s and was a defining shift in the postwar global economy. It reframed how economic space was understood and utilized under capitalism. Instead of seeing production and distribution as separate entities, large firms began looking at the development and management of a single, comprehensive system of design, production, warehousing, sales, distribution and circulation of goods and how to maximize profits within this system as a whole. Focus shifted from individual points of distribution and production to the entire supply chain.

The logistics revolution was an attempt to address an ongoing contradiction in capitalism: gaps between supply and demand that frequently lead to overproduction and often related financial crises. Its goal was to link supply and demand and eliminate friction between the two.

The supply chain is understood as a single system that must be continuously flowing at all times. This new focus on supply chain and logistics management, along with innovations in transport and communications technology, has shifted production from the national to the global scale. It also enabled new forms of flexible, “just-in-time” production (JIT), which demands that only the precise amount of products are manufactured as needed to avoid overproduction or dead capital sitting idly in warehouses.

All of this has sparked a global race to the bottom, as versatility in production allows capital to constantly seek the next port of call for cheaper resources or labor. This is frequently done via an elaborate network of subcontractors and partner firms. Work is not just more stressful; working people are also pitted against each other at the international level under fear of capital flight.

One major outcome of the shift to JIT has been a rewiring of the power balance in production away from manufacturers towards retailers, as goods are now produced so quickly that retailers can dictate exactly how much of and when a product is manufactured. No two retailers benefited more from — or did more to entrench — the logistics revolution than Walmart and Amazon.

Walmart’s early embrace of JIT and a logistics perspective enabled them to drop prices to previously unthinkable levels, while squeezing workers all along the supply chain. Retailers like Walmart’s control of the supply chain is now strong enough to fine suppliers for late, or even early, deliveries. Capitalizing on the logistics revolution helped make Walmart the world’s biggest company by revenue.

Amazon, one of only a handful of corporations on the planet valued at $1 trillion, took Walmart’s proven logistics and production strategies and ratcheted up the digital information aspect even further. Amazon expanded the technology element underpinning the logistics revolution, providing companies with the data necessary to manage their supply chains, and moved it to the foreground via the online marketplace and unprecedented electronic worker control. These tactics are often mimicked by competitors and Amazon has shaped a new generation of developments in retail.

Walmart and Amazon wasted little time after the outbreak of the pandemic before hiring a combined 250,000 workers in the US. The “Amazonification” of the economy has been so thorough that as small businesses remain shuttered due to coronavirus safety concerns, Amazon is often literally the only place to shop. Amazon and Walmart are not only well-primed to ride out — or profit off — the coronavirus crisis because of the goods they sell, but because the nature of their organization. Even more so than many competitors, they are not just retailers, they are massive logistics firms built around large-scale planning and in command of entire supply chains entangling the globe. No wonder then, that the two firms most commonly associated with the logistics revolution and JIT are some of the few that are booming while the world appears to be falling apart.

But even though Walmart and Amazon have made money off the pandemic, the pressure on global production shows that even they might not be able to avoid getting dragged into crisis. The implications for capital reveal the nature — and weaknesses — of modern capitalism. But it is the response of working people that has truly illuminated how today’s economy functions, and how this could be used to pursue radical changes.

Life and Death Along the Supply Chain

For those forced to face the horrific challenge of continuing to work in the midst of a global pandemic, labor has become an issue of life or death. Tragic stories of workers contracting COVID-19 should not just be a reminder of what they risk by merely clocking in, but also of the fact that they have been let down by states and employers failing to provide adequate protections, and by a system that leaves many working people so economically dependent on the next paycheck that they cannot afford to say no.

Lackluster responses from national governments to the need for increased worker protection means many essential workers are dependent on their employers for safety provisions, personal protective equipment and hazard pay. This has been among the workers’ main concerns during the crisis. Demands for basic safety reinstate the importance of the oft-forgotten central concern of organized labor: worker’s health and safety. Essential workers, whether in the medical, logistics or retail sectors, are first and foremost concerned with their own well-being, pointing to the importance of organizing on the job.

These same demands are central to all the instances of labor unrest and struggles for increased worker power worldwide; and this is no different in the midst of a global health crisis. Australian dockworkers have refused to unload container ships due to safety concerns. Worries about health issues caused dockworkers in Italy to strike as well and workers have protested unsatisfactory health precautions at a warehouse in New Jersey. The disproportionate number of strikes, walkoffs and worker protests occurring in the logistics industry further cement the predominance of supply chain capitalism.

Amazon has become a lightning rod for labor action during the coronavirus crisis. Strikes and protests have rocked fulfillment centers in Italy, France, Spain and Poland. In the United States, Amazon has faced walkoffs and strikes in New York, Detroit and Chicago, and most recently, the pledge of workers at 40 Amazon locations around the country to call out of work.

The strike in Staten Island, New York is a case study of Amazon’s cruel coronavirus policies. Upset with poor health precautions, unavailable paid sick leave and Amazon’s neglect to inform the workforce that one of their colleagues was diagnosed with COVID-19, warehouse workers began organizing. Amazon responded by putting Chris Smalls, who was leading the organizing effort, under “quarantine,” where he was ordered off the jobsite for two weeks to recover despite not showing symptoms, to keep him away from the rest of the workers.

Amazon’s maneuvering failed to prevent over 100 workers from participating in a work stoppage two days later. Instead of intervening with proper health measures at a warehouse that had a number of coronavirus cases, Amazon decided to fire Smalls for appearing at the work stoppage in support of his colleagues and launched an ugly PR campaign against him. For JIT-oriented logistics retailers like Amazon, labor unrest is just another case of friction in the supply chain.

At Whole Foods, the American grocery chain owned by Amazon, workers staged a “sickout” protest for higher sick pay and improved protections. Workers in warehouses, shops and distribution centers throughout Amazon’s sprawling web of supply chains are pushing back against grim conditions and the potential of contracting or spreading COVID-19, making business difficult for the company that is ramping up production during the crisis. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently asked the public to donate to a relief fund for delivery workers at Amazon and partnering subcontractors, demonstrating his highly-detached relation to reality, as well as the incapacity of a welfare state gutted by neoliberal reforms to care for its citizens.

At fellow retail giant Target, delivery workers have also staged a walkout, demanding hazard pay, sick leave and protective equipment. Instacart, the grocery delivery service that represents the extension of the supply chain directly to consumers’ doors under the conditions of the tech-based gig economy, has seen workers strike for hazard pay and sick leave as well. Though the majority of these strikes have been small in scale, their frequency and sectoral concentration speaks to how critical these jobs are for the economy as it currently exists — whether society considers these workers essential or not — and their potential role in an anti-capitalist labor movement.

Labor’s revolutionary potential

Global capitalism now makes the world economy run through distinct hubs along a plethora of different supply chains. This highlights the necessity to expand labor struggles beyond the sites of distribution (retail workers) and production (manufacturing workers) to include key supply chain hubs like sea- and airports, transport, warehouses, etc., as well. And never has this system been more vulnerable than now.

This will require an increase in cross-sectoral and international solidarity among individual workers as well as mass labor organizations. Flexible, global production demands a global response from working people. But the reliance of global capitalism on established routes and a vulnerability to any kind of friction can and should be a weapon for organized labor. The response of working people to poor, exploitative and dangerous working conditions drastically exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis demonstrates potential.

The majority of these worker actions are spontaneously organized by working people themselves, not by unions. If labor is to fulfill its potential, unions will need to be democratized and radicalized to help provide necessary structures, support and know-how. Strikes are currently mostly atomized pockets of workers sending messages to their bosses. As vital as this is, coordination and expansive solidarity will allow workers to win the critical health and safety provisions and support they need. Capitalizing on this moment will also be key to establishing infrastructures that will outlive the crisis.

In many ways, that work has already begun. Workers are not merely resisting dangerous conditions. Events like General Electric factory workers demanding to shift production towards ventilators to help fight COVID-19 provide a glimpse of what greater democracy at the workplace could look like. Democratic, worker-led initiatives will be necessary not only to ensure existing modes of production and distribution are used to adequately fight the global pandemic — instead of profiting off of it — they will help ensure working people have a greater say in how the economy and society are shaped more broadly.

Most importantly, the resistance of workers across the globe is a glimmer of hope in hauntingly dark times. Just as the coronavirus has pushed activists to develop inventive new forms of solidarity and action, working people have responded to a global health crisis and impending economic collapse by refusing to shut up and simply get back to work.

On a highly unique May Day, where traditional demonstrations and protests are rendered nearly impossible by the pandemic, striking workers are proving that direct action is still possible — and critical. This is just the most recent step in a global wave of labor actions through which working people have demanded more for themselves and their fellow workers, asserting their essential role in the economy and highlighting that they could, and should, play a leading position in a global movement shaping what the world looks like after the coronavirus crisis.

Dave Braneck

Dave Braneck is a Berlin-based journalist covering labor, politics and sports. He also contributed a book chapter on historic shifts in work, globalization and the state for the recently published Contours of the Illiberal State.

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Magazine — Issue 11