The Boat Stuck in the Suez Canal Shut Down Global Commerce. So Could Organized Workers.

The story of the boat lodged in the Suez Canal spurred countless memes and dominated headlines for days. It also dramatized the reality that seemingly magical global supply chains are based on real equipment and real workers — and more often than not, drudgery and worker exploitation.

A satellite image of the container ship Ever Given stuck in the Suez canal on March 29, 2021. (Maxar Technologies / Getty Images)

Whatever else it was, the boat story was funny. The global economy often feels like a subject of forbidding complexity; its operations seem opaque even though they have so much sway over our lives. Here was an economic problem with an incongruously simple cause: a big boat got stuck, and 12 percent of global trade came to a halt. Even with the ship now finally on the move, billions in costs will continue to accrue; some ships are driving up fuel costs by detouring around the southern tip of Africa while the ships that waited to sail through are now expected to cause major traffic jams as they arrive in port close together.

One reason the jokes and memes hit home is because the Ever Given illustrated the gap between the rhetoric and reality of neoliberal markets. We’re offered breathless paeans to the magic of efficient markets and the dazzling speed and scale of global supply chains. Pundits like Thomas Friedman compare efficient supply chains to symphonies and supply chain managers to genius conductors. Milton Friedman went even further, calling neoliberalism “a new faith” and attributing the manufacturing of a pencil not to the labor of real people but “the magic of the price system.” It can be genuinely uncanny to look at your iPhone and think that it was assembled from components in forty-three countries spread across every continent except Antarctica; the brands that coordinate these global supply chains can appear like sorcerers, summoning materials from around the globe to create a single seamless, ubiquitous commodity.

Yet the Ever Given cuts through these mystifications. It dramatizes the mundane material reality of global supply chains, which are much more about drudgery and exploitation than magic or symphonies. The same factories “magically” assembling all those components into electronics for Apple can be awful to work in. Employees infamously jumped off the factory roof rather than continue toiling away; factory management responded not by improving wages and working conditions but by installing nets on the side of the building. While pundits tout the neoliberal global economy as a site of innovation, sweatshop conditions for many workers are the same as a century ago; clothes for export are still far more likely to be sewn by women in their own homes being paid piece rates than manufactured by robots.

Global supply chains are profitable because they remorselessly lower costs and operate with as little surplus inventory as possible. This just-in-time manufacturing requires impressive feats of algorithmic manipulation to bring the parts together exactly when they’re needed, but it also forces workers to accept hours of forced overtime and highly unpredictable schedules. Working hours can vary by as much as 80 percent from week to week as retailers strive to keep up with changing fashions.

Beyond manufacturing, every stage of the logistics process offers additional opportunities for exploitation. Workers on container ships like Ever Given can be at sea for months at a time with no recourse if they have an abusive captain, and they are frequently denied their wages at the end of voyages. When those ships reach ports in the United States, the goods are often transported to retailers’ nearby distribution centers by truck drivers legally treated as independent contractors — who work twenty hours a day but still take home less than a dollar a week because they have to pay off the extortionate loans that cover the costs of having to provide their own trucks.

Much of the time, this system feels inescapable. Transnational supply chains make up some 80 percent of global trade. But then a big boat gets stuck, and the system’s fragility becomes common knowledge again. It doesn’t run on faith or magic — it runs on people working in the real world, facing physical and environmental limits. No algorithm can get a boat unstuck on its own.

There’s a sense in which we always know this, of course. But it doesn’t feel like practical knowledge, the kind of thing we can do something about. Workers around the world are connected by these supply chains — whether by contributing to the production, transport, or consumption of their goods — but we’re rarely organized in a way that makes collective action possible.

Instead, multinational corporations and their supply chain managers direct our connections to their own benefit. The uncanniness of the supply chain commodity itself — the power it seems to have to tie us together when we can’t come together directly — frequently feels more visceral than our knowledge of the exploitation of other workers we’ve never met. Part of the joy of the boat was seeing it do something we’ve rarely been able to — bring the whole thing to a stop. Maybe the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, but it was pretty funny to watch his boat turn against him for a few days.

Corporations and their supply chain managers are aware of this fragility and are already trying to make global supply chains more resilient at the lowest cost possible. The scarcity of PPE in the pandemic’s early days was another, less amusing reminder that supply chains relying on precision in supplies and delivery can be thrown off dramatically by the unexpected. But for supply chain managers, resilience can be achieved by deepening neoliberal precarity and making capital even more mobile, so that links in the chain that falter — whether due to a pandemic or a worker strike — can be replaced even more easily.

Still, the Ever Given’s massive global impact suggests that workers could disrupt choke points like the Suez Canal intentionally as a way to win demands. Even if the Association for Supply Chain Management is already advising its members how to “fix” their choke points, they’ll always be vulnerable to the extent that they rely on exploited workers to make the supply chain run.

To build power, workers will also need to find ways to organize with others along the chain — including workers and consumers in the United States. US consumers may feel connected to global supply chains only at the moment they buy a cheap T-shirt from Target or Walmart, but in fact brands and retailers constantly surveil consumers, both online and in stores; just-in-time manufacturing relies on this information not only to forecast demand but “retrain” customers to become reliable consumers who are comfortable sharing all their personal data. Global supply chains thus seek to direct the actions of US consumers even as they shape their prospects as workers, predictably driving down wages in a race to the bottom.

Workers don’t need to see each other as competitors — they share an interest in ending the corporate control of supply chains that disproportionally benefit the few. But because links among supply chain workers are largely dictated by corporations themselves, those connections feel less real than the phone we can hold in our hands. As Karl Marx put it, a commodity has an uncanny power over us even when we know it is nothing more than the product of human labor because we cannot “strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men.”

Right now, we’re not free. If we want to continue what the boat started, then there’s nothing more important than acting in solidarity with Amazon workers organizing a union in Bessemer, Alabama, and workers like them through global supply chains. The Ever Given pierced the veil around the global economy, but only by building actual social connections between workers and consumers in supply chains can we dispel the mystical air that surrounds efficient markets and makes them seem outside our power.

Supply chains vulnerable enough to be stopped by a single boat are also vulnerable enough to be reshaped by solidarity.