The aim of this article is to consider how distribution and logistics is organised in London.1 In order to do so it is necessary first to broaden the analytical lens. Although much has changed in the past 165 years, it is worth remembering Marx’s description:
‘Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property – a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange – is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.’2
To those immersed in Marx’s era, the technology of the present would appear almost magical. Furthermore, Marx argued that workers’ struggles could be helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and could place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.3 Again, consider the implications of instantaneous electronic communication, which is increasingly within the reach of many across the world. Attempting to explain ‘email’ would certainly be difficult, and video conferencing software like Skype would appear as a conjuring trick.
The rise of new technology has allowed almost inconceivable levels of complexity in the organisation of capitalism. This poses a challenge for the Left, one that is too often polarised between arguing that everything has changed, or that it all remains essentially the same. What is missing from the analysis is the experience that Brian Ashton describes in the 1960s and 1970s, when “there was constant interaction between working class militants and the left emerging from the universities”. This allowed for an understanding of “how the factory and the transport systems worked, and in that knowledge lay our ability to combat capital”. This is something that is lacking today with little knowledge about labour processes, or the workers involved. It is therefore “imperative that we gain deep knowledge of the processes of production and logistics, the supply chains of capital, or, to put it another way, the factories without walls”.4
There were a number of groups that attempted workers’ inquiries in 1960s and 1970s. However, much has changed since their documentation of workers’ struggles. We need to build on these types of inquiries today. The contemporary post-autonomist tradition, however – in a sense following the intellectual trajectory of the Italian Operaismo – reached a position that ultimately led to a “complete reversal of operaismo’s original positions”. Resistance to capital became “located in ‘the practices of the reproduction of labour-power’ – a category that comprises the totality of workers’ behaviours outside the factory”.5 The insights become further clouded by the fact that some became, as Alberto Toscano puts it, “narcissistically mesmerised by hackers, interns and precarious academics”.6 The shift of attention onto contemporary logistics workers has the potential to refocus the analytical lens in a constructive way. Rather than falling into the polarisation of previous decades, what is needed is an attempt to seriously engage with the changing nature of capital and the experience of workers themselves.
The growth of telesales, whether through call centres or internet shopping, has increased the importance of logistics. The logistics sector itself is also undergoing significant changes. As one industry figure has indicated in a number of predictions, technological innovation will continue to have an important impact.7 By 2020, it is likely that “paper records in warehouses will be a distant memory”, replaced instead with mobile devices. RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) has the potential to allow “inventory [to] count itself, and containers will be able to detect their own contents”. Furthermore, “GPS technology will allow pallets to report in if they end up in the wrong location”. Increasingly sophisticated IT and software systems have the potential to include “voice picking” so workers can “communicate directly with their Warehouse Management System (WMS) to improve stock recording, speed up order turn-rounds and shorten staff training periods”. The advances in computer software allow workers to “be more accurately measured against KPIs from time per task, picking routes, over/under performers, to staffing levels required for specific orders and picks”.
London as an urban area has a population of almost 10 million people.8 It therefore requires a vast number of commodities to be distributed every single day, not just to realise profits, but also to meet the basic needs of people who live there. An important precondition for cities of this scale is the establishment of the “efficient, profitable, ceaseless and standardised movement of material and information”.9 This process was discussed by Lewis Mumford in the 1960s:
During the 19th century, as populations heaped further into a few great centres, they were forced to rely more fully on distant sources of supply: to widen the basis of supplies and to protect the ‘life-line’ that connects the source with the voracious mouth of the metropolis, became the function of army and navy. In so far as the metropolis, by fair means or foul, is able to control distant sources of food and raw materials, the growth of the capital can proceed indefinitely.10
This means that cities require the development of extensive means of distribution, not only for production, but also for their reproduction. Mumford illustrates with the analogy that “like Alice’s Red Queen, by great exertion and utmost speed the metropolis barely manages to remain in the same position”.11
London has a number of different entry points for distribution, but the process is increasingly becoming centralised into two locations. The first is located in West London, near Heathrow, with vast complexes of warehouses packaging, sorting, and distributing commodities into London and the rest of the UK. Major supermarket chains use this distribution centre to transport food into the UK, before moving it on via a network of smaller warehouses to the supermarkets themselves. This process is becoming increasingly complicated, with the proliferation of internet shopping. An increasing number of customers are now “using their computers, tablets and smart phones to shop for groceries”. For example, Tesco is opening its sixth home delivery centre in the South East of England, in Erith, employing 650 workers, in addition to those already established in Croydon, Enfield, Crawley, Greenford and Aylesford.12
The second is the London Gateway development, based around a new port and logistics site nearing completion in East London. Located on the north bank of the river Thames, this “strategic location makes it the natural point for distribution with 18 million people living within 75 miles”. The port offers 34 operational berths and 16 independent working terminals on its 7.5 kilometres of quay. The proposed new site is a sprawling complex of at least 860 acres with over 500,000 square metres of warehouse space, all served by 7 kilometres of internal roads.13 The scale of the development has led a member of Thurrock Council to announce that the area could become a “logistics hub for the nation”.14 The London Gateway development has received ‘strong interest’ from logistics companies given that it can “reduce round-trip costs by £59 per container to the Midlands and North-West and £189 per container for London and the South-East, representing about 90% of the UK deep-sea market”.15
The people who will work in the new logistics centre remain largely absent from the managers’ statements. One of these, however, notes that the London Distribution Park can “draw upon the established skilled labour resource attracted by the Port, which also has strong links to the Academy of Logistics and provides specialist training”. It continues to explain how Thurrock benefits from both a higher percentage of skilled trades and process plant and machine operatives (13.7%) than the national average (10.8 %).The unemployment rate for Thurrock is 9.2%, higher than both the East London average of 6.7% and nationally at 8.1%. This shows that the Thurrock area offers greater potential for an additional pool of labour to be drawn upon over and above the existing manufacturing, transport and distribution workforce.16
This clinical estimation of Thurrock as a particularly suitable distribution centre reveals a glimpse of the realities for the workers involved. In another article it is indicated that there is a “need to recruit nearly half a million new people into logistics” in the UK. However, “in most places where logistics takes place there are alternatives . . . our competitors include shops, hotels, bars, restaurants, hospitals and care homes”.17 What is immediately notable from these examples is that the ‘competitors’ are mainly in low-paid casual sectors of the economy, and in particular likely to employ workers on zero-hours contracts.
This is confirmed by looking at job advertisements on the internet. In West London – the first of the two centralised locations discussed earlier – a ‘temporary warehouse operative’ is paid £6.31 per hour on a temporary contract. The requirements for the job stipulate that “applicants must have previous warehouse experience and live in the local area, due to the early start times”, with three shifts covering the entire 24-hour period.18 The pay for the job is minimum wage – the lowest amount a company can pay. It is hard to read into the conditions of the job from internet adverts, but at an anecdotal level it is safe to assume that the work is demanding. What is particularly interesting is that the employer expects workers to live in close proximity to the workplace. This is not common in London as many workers have to commute. This concentrates workers into one particular area: the possibility of increasing contact could have important implications for organisation.
The Logistics of Struggle
The scale and complexity of logistics and distribution make the sector very difficult to understand from the outside. It is clear that a city the size of London requires vast quantities of commodities transported each day. The disruption of these complex flows can have an almost immediate effect. The increased use of just-in-time distribution techniques to drive down costs also creates bottlenecks in supply chains.
Electronics, for instance, “are typically manufactured from a myriad of complex parts, sourced from multiple locations around the globe, and as high value fashion items – their distribution requires tight timetables, exact demand planning, and ultra-secure delivery”. This means that “a pallet of mobile phones . . . is worth over £250,000”. For managers, the primary concern is security. Measures may include “police-checked drivers with airport security clearance, double-manned collections and escorted deliveries, with police pre-advised of route and satellite tracking, as well as on-site initiatives such as air-lock integral unloading”. However, there is a further risk that “in such a fast moving environment prone to peaks – massively influenced by trends and marketing drives – a product that doesn’t arrive on time may have missed its one chance of sale”.19 While the focus may be on preventing theft of the products, the fragility of the process could give the workers involved significant leverage.
There are a number of examples of developing workers’ struggles in the logistics sector. In Italy this year there was an attempted national strike, as part of a struggle that has been going for two years. The workers involved distribute products for IKEA and major supermarket chains. They are employed through ‘cooperatives’ which “have a long history in Italy, and were originally created for the mutual protection of workers”. This has mutated into a situation in logistics where they “are often used to mask black market labour, and cut labour costs”, and the workers effectively become outsourced and casualised. The workers, many of whom are migrants, have been involved in a militant campaign. One of the flashpoints took place in October outside IKEA’s warehouse in Piacenza, a workplace of 500, which saw “violent clashes between Polo Logistico workers and police”.20 As one striker explained:
“Look, I come from Egypt . . . As you know, we had a revolution over there in 2011. In those days I used to say to my comrades that Tahrir Square could be everywhere, even in Piacenza . . . As a matter of fact, our struggle was a small revolution. Exactly like the people gathering in Tahrir Square, we realized the power of unity and we lost our fear. Ultimately, I think this was our most important achievement.”21
This quotation exemplifies the importance that politics can play in developing workplace struggle. The prevalence of modern communications provides increased opportunities for the generalisation of struggle, as described earlier by Marx in the introduction. Images of struggle are transmitted over the world and, alongside networks of migration, provide the potential for new ways to mobilise.
Another example is the recent strikes at Amazon warehouses in Germany. A struggle over pay has seen hundreds of workers out on strike for three days at two distribution centres.22 These examples – and they are not the only ones – show the potential for workers’ struggle to emerge in these casualised contexts. What is particularly interesting and requires further attention is the forms that the new struggles may take; the connections made between workers themselves and the relationship to established trade unions.
The Next Steps
This article aimed to discuss how logistics and distribution is organised in London. At this stage it is only possible to broadly sketch the overall picture. There is clearly much more that needs to be investigated: in particular there needs to be a focus on the experience of workers. A proposed workers’ inquiry, now being developed by activists in London, could begin this process. The workers who are employed in the warehouses gain an unrivalled knowledge of the processes involved. The disconnection between the Left and groups of workers like this remains a serious problem. In many ways it is the reason for the difficulty in answering questions about how logistics is organised. This process should be neither a search for a new vanguard to provide a short-cut to successful struggle, nor should the Left only focus on sectors where it already has links and where workers are in proximity to established trade unions. While the pitfalls of either polarised perspective are clear – taking into account both the unimaginative claim that nothing has changed, and the overexcited claim that everything has – there is a necessity now to develop more useful insights. The Left, after all, should be trying to construct knowledge – not merely through conversations with itself – to serve a strategic goal.
While it is clear that workers at certain points of the process can disrupt the flow of goods, Alberto Toscano suggests that logistics should be viewed “not just as the site of interruption, but as the stake of enduring and articulated struggles”.23 After a lengthy period of defeat for the organised working class, it is difficult to imagine or predict the form of new workers’ struggles. However, what is important is to try and understand the way in which struggle can develop, not only from throwing spanners into the cogs (or perhaps circuits) of capitalism, but to wrestle control from those holding the levers. Logistics plays such a crucial role in the production and reproduction of capital, yet it also vital for conceiving how a possible alternative future could be built.
Jamie Woodcock is currently studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths, London. He is an activist interested in workers’ inquiries.
1 This article was inspired by a recent meeting of activists discussing the possibility of a workers’ inquiry into logistics in London: http://libcom.org/blog/invitation-workers-inquiry-logistics-warehouse-london-04092013
2 Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848) Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
4 Ashton, B (2006) ‘The Factory Without Walls’, Mute, 2(4): http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/factory-without-walls
5Turchetto, M. (2008) ‘From “Mass Worker” to “Empire”: The Disconcerting Trajectory of Italian Operaismo’, in J. Bidet & S. Kouvelakis (eds.,) Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, Boston: Brill, p295.
6 Toscano, A. (2011) ‘Logistics and Opposition’, Mute, 3(2): http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/logistics-and-opposition
7 Warehouse News (2013) ‘Advanced provides top ten predictions on the future of third party logistics’: http://www.warehousenews.co.uk/2013/09/advanced-provides-top-ten-predictions-on-the-future-of-third-party-logistics/
9 Toscano, A. ‘Logistics and Opposition’.
10 Mumford, L. (1961) The City in History, New York: Harcourt, p539.
11 Mumford, L. The City in History, p540.
12 Logistics Manager (2013) ‘Tesco to open Erith dot-com centre in October’: http://www.logisticsmanager.com/Articles/21065/Tesco+to+open+Erith+dot-com+centre+in+October.html
14 Cast UK (2013) ‘Thurrock to become “National Logistics Hub”’: http://www.castuk.com/recruitment-news/logistics-recruitment-news/thurrock-to-become-quotnational-logistics-hubquot/801520870
15 Warehouse News (2013) ‘London Gateway logistics park offers unrivalled opportunities’: http://www.warehousenews.co.uk/2013/03/london-gateway-logistics-park-offers-unrivalled-opportunities/
17 Logistics Manager (2013) ‘Why not give the local a try?’: http://www.logisticsmanager.com/Articles/21189/Why+not+give+the+local+a+try.html
19 Logistics Manager (2013) ‘Touch of Tech’: http://www.logisticsmanager.com/Articles/21193/Touch+of+tech.html
20 Zerbino, M. (2013) ‘Immigrant Workers Strike Hits Warehouse Sector in Italy’, Labour notes: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2013/04/immigrant-workers-strike-hits-warehouse-sector-italy#sthash.rumwJY9G.dpuf
21 Quoted in Zerbino, M. (2013) ‘Immigrant Workers Strike Hits Warehouse Sector in Italy’, Labour notes.
22 Uni Global Union (2013) ‘Amazon workers strike again in Germany’: http://www.uniglobalunion.org/Apps/UNINews.nsf/vwLkpById/134C9A382FCBE527C1257BEB0052FC96?OpenDocument
23 Toscano, A. ‘Logistics and Opposition’.