Our Fast Supply Chain Put Workers’ Lives at Risk. Let’s Not Bring It Back.

In mid-October, President Biden declared that the Port of Los Angeles would open 24 hours a days, seven days a săptămână. This was in addition to the Port of Long Beach which had been operating since September. This announcement came after weeks of negotiations by the White House with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and shippers like UPS and FedEx. It also included major retailers like Walmart and Target.

The purpose of expanding port hours accordingTo the New York Times, was “to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.” Reading this, you might be forgiven for imagining that an array of crucial items like medicines or their ingredients or face masks and other personal protective equipment had been languishing in shipping containers anchored off the West Coast. You might also be forgiven for imagining that workers, too lazy for the moment at hand, had chosen a good night’s sleep over the vital business of unloading such goods from boats lined up in their dozens offshore onto trucks, and getting them into the hands of the Americans desperately in need of them. Reading further, however, you’d learn that those “critical goods” are actually things like “exercise bikes, laptops, toys, [and] patio furniture.”

Fair enough. After all, as my city, San Francisco, enters what’s likely to beAnother almost dry winter on a planet in more trouble than ever, I can see my desire for patio furniture increasing to a critical level. So, I’m relieved to know that dock workers will now be laboring through the night at the command of the president of the United States to guarantee that my needs are met. There are certainly shortages of some more important items, such as disposable diapers, and aluminum needed to package some pharmaceuticals. Still, a major focusThe media has been focused on the specter of “slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Providing “critical” yard furnishings is not the only reason the administration needs to unkink the supply chain. It’s also considered an anti-inflation measure (if an ineffective one). The Consumer Price Index had jumped at the end of October 6.2%The highest inflation rate in the past three decades occurred in the same period in 2020. This rise is often blamed on too many goods being chased by too little money. One explanation for the current rise in prices is that, during the worst months of the pandemic, many Americans actually saved money, which they’re now eager to spend. When the things people want to buy are in short supply — perhaps even stuck on container ships off Long Beach and Los Angeles — the price of those that are available naturally rises.

Republicans are christened the current jump in the consumer price index as “Bidenflation,” although the administration actually bears little responsibility for the situation. But Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats know one thing: if it looks like they’re doing nothing to bring prices down, there will be hell to pay at the polls in 2022 and so it’s the night shift for dock workers and others in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and possibly other American ports.

However, running West Coast ports 24/7 won’t solve the supply-chain problem, not when there aren’t enough truckers to carry that critical patio furniture to Home Depot. The shortage of such drivers arises because there’s more demand than ever before, and because many truckers have simply quit the industry. As the. New York Times reports, “Long hours and uncomfortable working conditions are leading to a shortage of truck drivers, which has compounded shipping delays in the United States.”

Rethinking (Shift Work)

Truckers aren’t the only workers who have been rethinking their occupations since the coronavirus pandemic pressed the global pause button. The number of employees quitting their jobs hitThis September, 4.4 million people resigned, which is 3% of the U.S. population. Industries like hospitality and construction saw the highest levels of resignations. medicineThis is the area where employees are most at-risk of Covid-19 exposure.

For the first time in many decades, workers are in the driver’s seat. They can command higher wages, and they can expect better working conditions. And that’s exactly what they’re doing at workplaces ranging from agricultural equipment manufacturer John DeereBreakfast cereal makers Kellogg Nabisco. I’ve even been witnessing it in my personal labor niche, part-time university faculty members (of which I’m one). Let me pause to thank the 6,500 part time professors in the University of California system. Your threat of a strike lasting two days wonA new contract with a 30% increase in your salary over the next five-years!

This brings me to Biden’s October announcement about those ports going 24/7. In addition to demanding higher pay, better conditions, and an end to two-tier compensation systems (in which laborers hired later don’t get the pay and benefits available to those already on the job), workers are now in a position to reexamine and, in many cases, reject the shift-work system itself. They have good reason to do this.

So what is shift work? It’s a system that allows a business to run continuously, ceaselessly turning out and/or transporting widgets year after year. The typical eight-hour workday includes 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. – midnight – and 8:00 a.m. – or other shifts. Sometimes, workers may be required to work 16 hours per shift in times of labor shortages. Shift work is a great option for businesses because it saves time and money on powering machinery. Plus, if time is money then more time works means more profit. Shift work is beneficial for many industries. But for workers, it’s often another story.

The Graveyard Shift

Each shift within a 24-hour schedule is given its own name. The obvious shift is the day shift. The swing shift allows you to switch between the day and all-night shifts. According to folk etymology, that shift got its name because, once upon a time, cemetery workers were supposed to stay up all night listening for bells rung by unfortunates who awakened to discover they’d been buried alive. While it’s true that some coffins in England were once fitted with such bells, the term was more likely a reference to the eerie quiet of the world outside the workplace during the hours when most people are asleep.

I can personally attest the strangeness of the graveyard shift. I used to work in an ice cream cone factory. Loud, smoky machines, resembling small Ferris wheel-shaped machines, moved metal molds around in a noisy and smoky environment, while the flames heated the cones. After a rotation, each mold would tip and release four cones onto a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt would then continue to approach my station with rows upon rows of cones. I’d scoop up a stack of 25, twirl them around in a quick check for holes, and place them in a tall box.

Almost simultaneously, I’d make cardboard dividers, scoop up three more of those stacks and seal them, well-divided, in that box, which I then inserted in an even larger cardboard carton and rushed to a giant mechanical stapler. There, I pressed it against a switch, and — boom-ba-da-boom — six large staples would seal it shut, leaving me just enough time to put that carton atop a pallet of them before racing back to my machine, as new columns of just-baked cones piled up, threatening to overwhelm my worktable.

The only time you stopped picking up and boxing was when a relief worker arrived. You could take a break or eat your lunch. You rarely talked to your fellow-workers, because there was only one “relief” packer, so only one person at a time could be on break. It was against health regulations to drink water on the line. Management was too poor to purchase screens for the windows, which remained closed even when it was over 100 degrees outside.

They didn’t like me very much at the Maryland Pacific Cone Company, maybe because I wanted to know why the high school boys who swept the floors made more than the women who, since the end of World War II, had been climbing three rickety flights of stairs to stand by those machines. I was assigned to all three shifts by the management, who then started to mess up my schedule. As you might imagine, I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot and would occasionally resort to those “little white pills” immortalized in the truckers’ song “Six Days on the Road.”

But I’ll never forget one graveyard shift when an angel named Rosie saved my job and my sanity. It was probably three in a morning. I’d been standing under fluorescent lights, scooping, twirling, and boxing for hours when the universe suddenly stood still. I realized at that moment that I’d never done anything else since the beginning of time but put ice cream cones in boxes and would never stop doing so until the end of time.

Time lost its meaning. However, dimensions still mattered a lot because the cones I was working with that night were much larger than I was used. Soon, I was falling behind as a large mound of 40-ounce Eat-It-Alls covered the table and began to fall onto the floor. I stared at the piles, frozen, and then I noticed that someone was at my elbow, gently pushing them away from me.

Rosie, who had been in that plant since the end of World War II, said quietly, “Let me do this. You take my line.” In less than a minute, she had it all under control, while I spent the rest of the night at her machine, with cones of a size I could handle.

I have never felt so happy to see the dawn.

The Graveyard Shift: A Deadly Reality

So when the president of the United States tried to get dock workers in Los Angeles to work late, I felt a twinge or horror. There’s another all-too-literal reason to call it the “graveyard” shift. It turns out that sleeping in is dangerous. Not only are there more accidents when the body expects to fall asleep, but night work can also have long-term negative effects. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reportsNight work can have many negative effects, including:

“type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders. Night shift workers may be more at risk for reproductive issues such as irregular periods, miscarriage, preterm birth, and other reproductive issues. Night shift workers are more susceptible to digestive problems and other psychological issues such as stress and depression. The fatigue associated with nightshift can lead to injuries, vehicle crashes, and industrial disasters.”

Some studies have shownThis shift work can also lead a decrease in bone-mineral density, and osteoporosis. Shift-work disorder is the umbrella term for all these problems.

Studies have also shown that the graveyard shift directly links to an increased incidence for several types of cancers, including breast, prostate, and other forms of cancer. Why would disturbed sleep rhythms lead to cancer? Because these disruptions alter the release of the hormone Melatonin. Most of the body’s cells contain little “molecular clocks” that respond to daily alternations of light and darkness. The pineal gland releases melanin to promote sleep when the light goes down at night. In fact, many people take it in pill form as a “natural” sleep aid. Normal circumstances will continue this melatonin release until the body sees light again in morning.

The regular production of melatonin is affected by disruptions in the daily (circadian), rhythm. This has an additional biological function. According to NIOSH, it “can also stop tumor growth and protect against the spread of cancer cells.” Unfortunately, if your job requires you to stay up all night, it won’t do this as effectively.

There’s a section on the NIOSH website that asks, “What can night shift workers do to stay healthy?” The answers are not particularly satisfying. They include regular checkups and seeing your doctor if you have any of a variety of symptoms, including “severe fatigue or sleepiness when you need to be awake, trouble with sleep, stomach or intestinal disturbances, irritability or bad mood, poor performance (frequent mistakes, injuries, vehicle crashes, near misses, etc.), unexplained weight gain or loss.”

Unfortunately, even if you have access to healthcare, your doctor can’t write you a prescription to cure shift-work disorder. The cure is to stop working when you should be sleeping.

A End to Shiftwork?

Your doctor can’t solve your shift work issue because, ultimately, it’s not an individual problem. It’s an economic and an ethical one.

There will always be some work to be done when most people are asleep, including security, healthcare, and emergency services. But most shift work gets done not because life depends upon it, but because we’ve been taught to expect our patio furniture on demand. As long as advertising and the grow-or-die logic of capitalism keep stoking the desire for objects we don’t really need, may not even really want, and will sooner or later toss on a garbage pile in this or some other country, truckers and warehouse workers will keep damaging their health.

Perhaps the pandemic, with its kinky supply chain, has given us an opportunity to rethink which goods are so “critical” that we’re willing to let other people risk their lives to provide them for us. Unfortunately, such a global rethink hasn’t yet touched Joe Biden and his administration as they confront an ongoing pandemic, supply-chain problems, a rise in inflation, and — oh yes! — an existential climate crisis that gets worse with every plastic widget produced, packed, and shipped.

It’s time for Biden — and the rest of us — to take a breath and think this through. There are good reasons why so many people are leaving dangerous, underpaid work. Many are questioning the role of work in their lives and reevaluating the nature of it, regardless of what the president or anyone else may want.

And that’s a paradigm ShiftWe could all learn to live with each other.