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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Handling Globalization: Labor, Capital, and Class in the Globalized Warehouse and Distribution Center

  • Author(s): Struna, Jason Young
  • Advisor(s): Guenther, Katja
  • Reese, Ellen
  • et al.

This dissertation provides a case study of the labor process and employment conditions within warehouses and distribution centers in Southern California—a crucial stop in the global supply chain for a myriad of transnationally sourced goods. It employs qualitative research methods including in-depth interviews with warehouse workers, managers, and contractors, in addition to using participant observation to examine workers’ understanding of the workplace, resistance, and class relations embedded in global commodity chains. Combining theoretical insights from research on the labor process and global capitalism, it argues that the appropriate foci for the analysis of globalization and class are the shop floors integrated into these chains. While research on the transnational capitalist class has been robust, transnational working class formations have been relatively understudied. Thus, to analyze these issues the dissertation focuses on the following questions: How do transnational corporations maintain control over labor within warehouses and distribution centers despite large geographic distances and complex institutional environments mediating relationships between capitalists and workers? What are the mechanisms of exploitation used in warehouses and distribution centers, and how do workers experience and respond to those mechanisms when executing labor, comprehending the labor process, and resisting exploitation and control? How does the coordination of the labor process on global capital’s part contribute to the formation of a global “working class in-itself?” How are warehouse workers in Southern California organizing to improve their working conditions, and build alliances with other workers in the global supply chain? These questions are addressed by analyzing relationships between the complex networks of transnational firms—global retailers, logistics and warehousing companies, and temporary employment services—and warehouse workers, labor organizations, and their allies. Findings suggest that coordination and control is achieved through information and transport technologies, task standardization, and complex workplace regimes relying on the use of immigration, gender, and racial and ethnic statuses. Such arrangements induce precarity for workers, and dangerous working conditions that create substantial stresses and strains. Finally, the relationships that obtain from participation in these workplaces embedded in transnational commodity chains have impacts on transnational class formation and resistance in the global era.

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