Global production networks are primarily an instrument designed to avoid the power of organized labour. Through the efficiency of the shipping container, the global transport chain has facilitated the movement of production to unprotected and often desperate workers. As conditions improve in these sites, through workers’ burgeoning ability to organize and make demands, trade treaties and the transport chain are once again restructured in order to retain power and capture the surplus value that can be extracted from another unprotected group. Under such conditions, established trade unionists are grappling with a difficult series of contradictions manifest at every level, from the individual to the global. The choices between an increasingly compromised effort to preserve hard-won ground and an increasingly risky requirement for global solidarity work are daunting. The Global Union Federations, some of which have been around for more than 100 years, are taking up a central role in this struggle, but, as products of a historical and democratic movement, they are also hampered by the same divisions that beset the shopfloor membership.
Rose George's recent book on the shipping industry, Deep Sea and Foreign Going (2013), seems to have captured at least some of the public interest in what another writer aptly calls ‘the forgotten space’ (Sekkula and Burch, 2010). George juxtaposes the historical romance of the high seas with the sheer boredom and isolation experienced by the contemporary seafarer working on the icon of our global production networks, the container ship. Even the docks of the largest ports, which once mythically teemed with sailors and stevedores, are now depopulated spaces as automation reduces on- and offloading, and so cuts a ship's time in port, from days to a couple of hours.
Note that the crucial role of transport workers in industrial processes has made them a definitive force in the history of organized labour and note that stevedores and sailors are the historical backbone of international labour solidarity. Note that in 2013 the Danish global shipping giant, Maersk, launched its newest vessel, the triple E class container ship Maersk Mc-Kinney-Moller. For the moment, it is the largest container ship in the world, with capacity for more than 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers (TEUs). Reportedly, its ‘Safe Operating Certificate’ permits a thirteen-member crew. This includes bridge, deck, engineering and cabin crew. This is shift work.