Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution by Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson


Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson , Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution , Ithaca : Cornell University Press , 2008 . ISBN 978-0-8014-7425-5 ( paper )

It is a well-worn truism to say that the way in which the planet's economy operates at present is, in many ways, quite different from how it did half a century ago. Thus, thanks to the annihilation of space by time we live today in a smaller world and in a world in which the consequences of events on one side of the planet are almost instantaneously transmitted across its surface. This is a world of “fast capitalism” (Agger 1989) in which we are witnessing the “acceleration of just about everything” (Gleick 1999) as we increasingly come to exist in an “epoch of simultaneity” (Foucault 1986). Such a shrinkage of distance and the speed-up of economic life are, as it turns out, and as Marx illustrated a century and a half ago, central elements in improving the efficiency of capital accumulation through reducing capital's turnover time. Certainly, technological revolutions in transportation and telecommunications are central to this reduction of turnover time, allowing money, information, commodities, and people to move from place to place ever more rapidly. But, there are also social and economic revolutions which have also been central to this process, not least in the arena of logistics management and goods’ handling. It is this latter phenomenon which Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution addresses.

Logistics, of course, has always been central to how capitalism has operated, as commercial enterprises have long had to manage their products and raw materials successfully if they are to stay in business. However, as Bonacich and Wilson illustrate, the idea of logistics has undergone a tremendous transformation in the past few decades. Specifically, they argue (p 3), its meaning “has been expanded to refer to the management of the entire supply chain, encompassing design and ordering, production, transportation and warehousing, sales, redesign and reordering”, with this entire cycle of production and distribution “now viewed as a single integrated unit that requires its own specialists for analysis and implementation”. This change in perspectives has resulted in what Bonacich and Wilson call a “logistics revolution”. Although this revolution has several characteristics, perhaps the most important has been the growth of retailers’ economic power at the expense of manufacturers—a growth they view as “one of the major and largely neglected features of globalization” (p 7). Hence, the rise of technologies that give retailers instantaneous point-of-sale (POS) data has facilitated their ability to force manufacturers to produce certain commodities and, often, to tell them how, when, where, and at what price they should do so. Arguably, the leader in this regard has been Wal-Mart, which is now the single largest importer of goods into the United States and is singularly responsible for about a tenth of all goods imported from China—in 2006, for instance, Wal-Mart imported into the USA 695,000 containers which, if stacked together, would fill the Great Pyramid at Giza more than eight times over (Malone 2006). This transformation has had significant implications for the geography of the world economy, both in terms of the location of manufacturing but also in terms of how different parts of the planet are now being linked together through trade. It is in this context that Bonacich and Wilson explore the impact particularly of the logistics revolution on the ports of the US's West Coast and especially those of southern California.

In terms of the organizational structure of Getting the Goods, the book is broken down into three sections—The Logistics Revolution and its Consequences, Moving the Freight, and Labor, which together contain nine substantive chapters. As might be imagined from the section titles, the first section deals with transformations in retailing and how this has impacted the production chain. The second section deals with a number of actors involved in physically moving and storing commodities (steamship lines, trucking companies, warehouses and distribution centers), together with how intermodalism has shaped the rise of the southern Californian ports. The third section deals with the impacts of changes in the logistics industry on maritime, railroad and trucking, and warehouse and distribution center workers. There is also a brief conclusion.

There is an incredible amount of information in these chapters, including information on the types of goods shipped, who are the big players in the industry, how contemporary transformations in the global economy are differentially impacting different ports and their structures of governance, and the reorganization of the various players in the logistics industry. In this sense the book could serve as a good source of data for anyone interested in the cargo handling industry. The book is written in a very readable style, and so would be appropriate for undergraduate students. The authors have done a sterling job in collecting such data. I did, however, find some weaknesses. Firstly, the book could well have done with a map, at least of southern California—there are a number of places mentioned in the text that sit within the so-called “Inland Empire” that readers who are not very familiar with southern California will not know (yes, there are people to whom that applies!). Secondly, the book is quite descriptive—although there are some broader conceptual issues addressed at the beginning, it is, for the most part, pretty much a narrative account of changes in the industry drawn from what people have said in interviews and from what the authors have collected from primary written materials. Thirdly, for this reader, the narrative in places has too many statements such as “we also visited company X and were granted a wonderful interview by Vice President Bloggs” and “here are some interesting things to know about shipping”. Although this may be an attractive narrative style to some, to me it became rather grating after a while, as it gave the impression that the book had been put together as a series of “this is what we did next” reports. Overall, though, the book does provide a lot of useful data on this emerging industry which lies at the center of the global economy.