Edna Bonacich has long been concerned with the global dimension of modern production systems and their impact upon labour, initially in relation to the apparel industry. In a recent article on the mega retailer Wal-Mart (in Lichtenstein ed 2006) she argued a ‘logistics revolution’ was fundamentally reshaping patterns of global production and distribution, placing ‘big box’ retailers firmly in command, with dramatic consequences for manufacturers, distributors and their workforces. ‘Getting the Goods’ expands this analysis in a full length book, based upon her first hand research of the Los Angeles / Long Beach area of California, a key node of the new system.

The character of this ‘logistics revolution’ occupies the first part of the book. At its heart are increasingly global and economically integrated supply chains governed by a new ‘pull’ model of production. Here ‘point of sale’ data capture at the retail end dictates new production runs (their scale, unit cost, design, quality and timing) and compressed delivery and inventory schedules. Independent businesses are now more closely integrated in these networks, through electronic data interchange, with the mega retailers (as translators of consumer preferences) in the driving seat overall.

Changes in the realm of production in the direction of shorter, differentiated product runs and contingent scheduling (on an ‘as needed’ basis) are central features of this ‘revolution’. They are accompanied by powerful tendencies towards outsourcing and offshoring. Flexible production networks involving multiple subcontractors have now spread around the globe as parent companies (especially the mega retailers) seek out ever lower prices, prompting the rise of the global sweatshops and much noted industrial development in Asia. To coordinate this whole matrix of production and distribution sites, a whole new ‘science’ and business of ‘logistics’ has sprung up, aiming to maximise the flow of goods and draw upon transportation innovations like containerisation and intermodal freight movement.

The actual movement of freight along these supply chains is brought to life in a detailed case study of the Los Angeles / Long Beach port area, the largest in the US and key conduit for the influx of Asian and Chinese manufactured imports. The range of actors, functions and powers uncovered here illustrates the internal complexity of such systems, but the authors never lose sight of the ultimate control exercised by those importing the goods in the first place. It is the big box retailers who decide what is moved, by whom, when and at what price, their demands then transmitted down the supply chains to financially constrain suppliers, contractors and their workforces – in much the same way as they do in the realm of production itself. Bonacich and Wilson then take us through each stage of this global distribution process in turn.

At its most general level, Containerisation (the uninterrupted carriage of cargoes across land and sea) and Intermodalism (the integrated transportation of container cargoes) are key drivers of the growth of the US West Coast ports and international freight movement. Their introduction has created closer links between transportation modes, allowed door-to-door cargo deliveries, vastly expanded port facilities and quickened their operations. As world trade continues its heady expansion, the US has seen a rapid rise of imports, with Los Angeles / Long Beach acting as national gateway and handling around 40% of all this trade.

Oceanside, major shipping lines have seen their operations grow equally rapidly, with their massive vessels competing against each other for orders from importing retail giants. One absolutely central change here is the ‘offshoring’ of container shipping to open registry countries. Their ‘flags of convenience’ vessels operate with minimal regulation and rely exploited workforces (recruited from across the Global south) to significantly lower transportation costs. Deep water ports like Los Angeles / Long Beach serve as major destinations for these vessels and their cargoes.

Once ashore the mountains of containerised imports are dispatched from ports overland by rail or truck, using intermodal transportation techniques to speed up operations. In Southern California Bonacich and Wilson find an elaborate network of transport modes, firms and workforces involved. Freight may be shipped directly from port by rail, or tractor – hauled to railheads or warehouses (the function of ‘harbour drayage’). Intermodal rail yards, handling up to ½ million trucks yearly, and situated beyond the ports, have sprung up in recent years, offering rail interchange facilities between companies and fast links inland.

All this growth and development has however brought significant social consequences for the Los Angeles / Long Beach area – in particular severe congestion and rising pollution levels, sparking community protests.

Final destination for the freight covered in this study is the inland warehouse or distribution centre (DC), site of the rapid inventory assemblage and replenishment demanded by JIT retailing. Here the new logistics of cross-docking facilities, inventory checking, customisation of generic stock and new automated technologies are all available to rapidly move cargoes from port to store in a ‘floor ready’ state. These are massive structures designed to accommodate multiple entry and dispatch points, at most able to handle 70,000 containers daily and covering an area of 1 million square feet!!

What the authors actually find in the Southern Californian Inland Empire area is a set of mega national import centres, run for TNCs by third party logistics firms, which operate on a smaller JIT platform of ‘point of sale’ import reordering and cross-docking – it is the regional DCs that use the JIT model to its fullest. Like the port area it serves, the Inland Empire is similarly plagued with congestion and pollution problems, testament to the unregulated economic growth both areas have undergone.

So, what about the workers in all this? The authors take up this theme in the final part of their book, examining the impact of the ‘logistics revolution’ upon five workforces that bring ‘supply chain management’ to life: seafarers, dockers, rail workers, port truckers and DC staff. They test here Bonacich’s earlier prediction that this revolution would bring more contingent working relations and patterns, weaker unions, racialised labour forces, and an ultimate lowering of labour standards. Here also the impact of wider political legislation upon the logistics revolution itself is clearly displayed – in particular the spur that transport deregulation has given to new working procedures.

The results are uneven. Contrast the case of those best resisting its worst effects (the longshore workers powerfully organised in the ILWU) who maintain a strategic degree of control over freight movements and their labour power, with the offshoring of seafarers jobs in the shift to ‘flags of convenience’ shipping, one accompanied by seriously deteriorating terms and conditions.

Port truckers have been worst affected – deregulation, the expansion of non-union trucking firms and an influx of independent ‘owner operators’, especially in the harbour drayage sector, have allowed contingent working relations to supplant once secure unionised labour and Teamster power.

In the rapidly expanding warehousing sector temporary employment has taken off, as the authors find amongst the 90,000 strong Inland Empire workforce, creating significant barriers to improving labour standards.

However Bonacich and Wilson do not see this as a one sided process circumventing labour organising and union power. The logistics revolution contains its own set of vulnerabilities that labour can address, ones enhancing the strategic power of transportation and warehousing workers who perform the essential circulatory functions the whole system relies upon. For instance, global production depends on long supply lines and just in time inventory scheduling that multiplies available points for disruption; its transportation nodes are equally vulnerable to labour conflict (as seen in the ILWU lockout of 2002 in Los Angeles / Long Beach); and greater commonality exists amongst those employed by the same mega employers – whether in manufacturing, distribution or retailing – allowing joint pressure to be exerted upon the likes of Wal Mart.

From such a recognition US labour could, say Bonacich and Wilson, develop a new strategic approach to organise entire industrial complexes like that of logistics in Southern California. Here the necessary daily intersections between logistics workforces, their channels of communication and coordination, when combined with their knowledge of its weak points, suggest possibilities for US labour to regain power in the global economy. All this depends however upon the unions admitting that traditional single plant or employer approaches are redundant in the wake of the logistics revolution, putting new strategies of inter-union cooperation and experiments in ‘flexible organising’ on their agenda. Capitalism, as ever, continues to produce its own opposition. What is missing so far is its mobilisation.