Friday, October 15, 2010

Labor as Factor of Production

Ad posted in the Journal of Commerce by the Port of Seattle in August 2009:

Course description at the University of Washington for GTTL 501 Global Logistics Management:

The gist of this scenario is that the Port of Seattle is subsidizing it's costs to reduce container fees to nothing to compete more strongly against Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland. Both of these ports chose to adopt or were about to adopt a plan requiring that port trucking companies hire their drivers on as employees, thus enabling their ability to unionize and thus inevitably driving up container fees.

To make themselves (ourselves?) more competitive, the Port of Seattle is choosing to sacrifice its short-haul drivers. We will offer a limited subsidy to encourage them to purchase newer, cleaner-burning trucks (ScRAPs), but the cost of the new truck will still mostly fall on the individual driver. I mentioned their salary and benefits scenario in past blog entries, so it's fair to assume that this plan is more for show than effect.

How do we choose where to make cost cuts along the supply chain? I think the simple answer is that elites do it where they can, where it will be least visible to the public (in the event that it might be controversial), and least piss off other people with power or influence. So where do they end up? In sectors populated by low-wage immigrant brown-skinned people, where possible. Where resistance is unlikely to be coordinated, where resources for resisting are slim, where individuals can be kept in competition with one another.

The only possible ethical response to this would be to assert that such jobs are only jobs that people pass through. That people will only spend limited time in them and them move on, upwardly mobile. Some may do this. The truth is that being a short-haul truck driver doesn't set a very good foundation for upward mobility - there's no place up to go in the industry itself, and it's unskilled labor, so no marketable skills are acquired. Many drivers take at least English classes, and some attend community college, so there is potential there. But for many it is their full-time job, the best or only one they have been able to get in America, and they have families to support.

Short-haul driving is a crucial part of the infrastructure, and short-haul drivers a crucial "factor of production." As such, I believe they should be treated that way - their jobs cared for, their infrastructure cared for. If we insist on labeling them a factor of production, then let's at least take care of the investment.

No comments: