Until the spring of 2020, global commerce functioned like a finely tuned machine consisting of thousands if not millions of gears, all meshing in perfect sequence. A cargo ship leaving China on a two-week voyage could be timed within 30 minutes to dock in Los Angeles to offload its containers. Prescheduled trucks and trains would be waiting to carry containers to their destinations. Factories and warehouses had their inventories calculated to minimize storage costs by ensuring parts went straight into production and products spent minimal time on warehouse shelves. Airlines could reliably match pilots, crew and maintenance personnel with scheduled flights to keep passengers moving within tightly predicted timeframes.
The machinery served to keep workforce wages low, but it ensured food, cars, factory parts and consumer goods remained within easy and affordable reach. Then the pandemic hit, and this intricate machinery lurched and coughed to a grinding halt. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced steps designed to restore the supply chain to some semblance of its former glory.
American consumers should brace for some rocky times to come, especially with holiday season approaching, as a shipping backlog clogs ports and a trucking shortage prevents products from reaching shelves. Inflation fears are growing as consumer demand outpaces supply and workers have the rare ability to demand higher wages for much-needed services.
Several high-profile recent events have underscored how badly the pandemic has thrown global commerce off track. Scores of ships are anchored off Los Angeles awaiting access to two ports that, together, handle 40% of America’s shipping cargo. A trucker shortage has prompted gasoline shortages in Britain. A slowdown in electronic chip production has forced car production lines to shut down. New and used-car prices are reaching record highs. And tens of thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers were stranded last weekend because the airline lacked pilots and crew members to operate its aircraft.
In all these instances, humans are the crucial factor determining when the machinery of global commerce gets back to pre-pandemic working order. Many employers are doubling or tripling their pay scales to lure workers back. For once, labor holds the upper hand and is able to dictate the terms, including with Biden’s plan to put the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, on a 24-hour work schedule to reduce the backlog.
But unless a new, more potent coronavirus variant forces another shutdown, this situation probably won’t last long. Employers will find a way to adapt, even if fewer workers means temporarily disappointing customers with waiting lists for goods and services. Workers who are fully vaccinated and prepared to abide by workplace masking precautions are the ones most likely to reap the wage benefits this new economy offers. But the holdouts, especially the vaccine skeptics, may soon find that an unprecedented labor opportunity has passed them by.