Challenges for Workers and Unions
Edited by Carole Thornley, Steve Jefferys and Beatrice Appay
Chapter 2: In the Age of Wal-Mart: Precarious Work and Authoritarian Management in the Global Supply Chain
Nelson Lichtenstein INTRODUCTION To understand why work has become more precarious, contingent, and sweated in our time, one has to grasp the shape of twenty-first-century capitalism. A globalized world of commerce and labor has existed for centuries. But today’s globalization differs radically from that of even a few decades past because of the contemporary role played by the corporate king-makers of our day, the big box retail chains that now occupy the strategic heights once so well garrisoned by the great manufacturing firms of the Fordist era. At the crux of the global supply chains stand the Wal-Marts, the Tescos, and the Carrefours of our time. They make the markets, set the prices, and determine the world-wide distribution of labor for that gigantic stream of commodities that now flows across their counters. What we once called ‘deindustrialization’ has entailed not just the destruction of a particular set of industries and communities, but the shift of power within the structures of world capitalism from manufacturing to a retail sector that today commands the supply chains which girdle the earth and directs the labor power of a working class, in the global North as well as the global South, whose condition replicates much that we once thought characteristic of only the most desperate, early stages of capitalist growth. For more than a century, from roughly 1880 to 1980, the manufacturing enterprise stood at the center of the world economy’s production/distribution nexus. In the USA government sometimes challenged the more egregious oligopolies, but...
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