Comparing Critical Capitalist Commodity Chains in the Early Twenty-first Century: Opportunities For and Constraints on Labor and Political Movements

Elizabeth Sowers, Paul S. Ciccantell, David A. Smith


There have been a number of critical historical opportunities for labor to exert power by interrupting long distance flows of commodities at the extraction, processing, and transport stages. This vulnerability has been used by workers in these industries to gain higher wages and better working conditions and to achieve political goals in national and international arenas. In this paper, we compare two commodity chains that are critical components of the global economy. The first, which we describe as transport, is a broad category involving a range of manufactured goods, whose delivery to customers around the world was fundamentally changed in the past fifty years via "containerization" and "the logistics revolution." The second is oil and gas, which also has experienced recently dramatic changes in both extraction (via "tar sands" and "[racking") and transportation. In each case, we discuss possibilities and challenges for labor and political organizing to disrupt capital in these key commodity chains. We identify the "stakes" in each commodity chain by demonstrating the vulnerabilities on which labor and political organizations/movements could capitalize, which usually stem from the capital intensity and global integration of each critical commodity chain. These vulnerabilities are the factors which form the most basic opportunities for organizing in these sectors. Our analysis further suggests that while transport and raw materials remain vulnerable nodes in capitalist commodity chains, there are also constraints and challenges to be faced by labor and social movement organizations (SMOs) that might attempt to leverage power over these circuits of the world-economy.


New historical materialism; environmental activism; labor unions; logistics; oil and gas extraction

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Copyright (c) 2015 Elizabeth Sowers, Paul S. Ciccantell, David A. Smith

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