In his book Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell attempts to explain the rising and falling political power of the working class in terms of the evolution of the world’s energy system. The first fossil fuel, coal, required hoards of men (and it was almost exclusively men) to bring it to the surface, get it to market, and bring it to its final users.
Since coal was the largest fossil fuel energy source for human societies from the early days of the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s and its extraction employed a large number of workers who over time unionized, strikes among coal workers severely impacted energy supplies. Those strikes riveted the attention of the authorities and the public as the health and economic well-being of society was at stake.
The rise of oil as the world’s dominate energy source changed all that. Oil required many fewer workers to bring it out of the ground and distribute it. Oil production utilizes pumps and pipelines instead of people to move fuel. The decline of the power of coal miners followed in the wake of oil’s rise. Oil did not similarly empower workers because so much of the system to extract and refine it runs automatically and can often be overseen temporarily by a few management personnel in the event of a strike or work stoppage.
Fast forward to today and we see for the first time in a very long time, workers in a variety of industries are showing renewed political and economic power as a variety of causes have created a labor shortage. Strikes are spreading across the United States and include workers in (not surprisingly) health care, manufacturing (farm implements, food), food service, public transit, building trades, and coal mining. Perhaps the most visible strikers are the 60,000 who produce television shows and films who say they will walk off their jobs within the next week. (See here, here and here.)
Others strikers around the world include delivery drivers in Britain and Brazil who have already struck or seem about to. Working conditions and pay are not the only issues. Italian port workers went on strike to protest mandatory vaccination requirements that include the use of a “Green Pass” to verify vaccination status. It’s rumored that Southwest Airlines’ operations were disrupted recently by a “sick out” by pilots to protest mandatory vaccination.
While the world may lament the loss of new episodes of their favorites TV shows, what will grasp their attention far more is if the food, fuel and manufactured goods they rely on flow more slowly or stop arriving altogether for a time.
The “just-in-time” inventory systems utilized by the world’s manufacturers and retailers to reduce the cost of holding and storing inventory seemed like a good idea at the time they were implemented. Now, these systems are looking increasingly foolish and costly in the face of breakdowns in the world’s far-flung supply chains.
All of this adds up to increased power for workers along supply chains for critical goods. Like the coal miners of past, these workers have leverage against employers and government alike. One little known reason for this leverage is that large corporate makers of key supplies have concentrated manufacturing among a few large suppliers and/or in one country or region. Any disruption among those large suppliers or in a critical country or region (say, due to bad weather or a pandemic) can lead to worldwide shortages as has happened with both semiconductors and medical supplies and equipment.
Those workers toiling where production and delivery occur are increasingly finding that they can exert greater control over their work environment and pay if they act in concert. Don’t be surprised if many, many more workers across the world start to understand this power and initiate a new era that I’ve dubbed chokepoint democracy.
Photo: Mother Jones rallying the miners at Eskdale, West Virginia during the Paint–Cabin Creek strike from 1912-1913. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mother_Jones_rallying_the_miners_at_Eskdale.png