The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Care work is critical to the supply chain

How whittling down Biden’s Build Back Better agenda may make it harder to fix supply chain issues.

Trucks travel past shipping containers in the Port of Los Angeles on Oct. 13. (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg News)

In response to the supply chain crisis, President Biden recently announced a deal to expand operations at the Port of Los Angeles, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) touted that ports are “open for business” in the Sunshine State. The strain on supply chains has led media outlets and retailers to urge consumers to do their holiday shopping early.

Yet few have made a connection between the global supply chain meltdown and the national debate over Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which continues to shrink as Democrats negotiate with recalcitrant members of their party who have criticized the package as “fiscal insanity.” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) specifically critiqued the expanded social welfare programs that liberals want to include in the bill, arguing that it should not be designed to “re-engineer the social and economic fabric of this nation.” Although some child-care provisions remain in the draft legislation, it appeared Wednesday as though Manchin’s resistance had forced Democratic leaders to remove paid family leave from the framework.

What he fails to see is this is exactly the sort of program that benefits those who can alleviate supply chain issues. The solution to the supply chain problem is not merely to increase consumer spending or figure out some magical logistics arrangement. “Supply” is not separate from social welfare. Rather, the construction, growth and upkeep of the infrastructure of supply depends on domestic and care labor.

Consider the construction of the Panama Canal, a central vein of global shipping completed between 1904 and 1914 — a massive feat of engineering that would have been impossible without the labor of social reproduction provided by Black migrant women.

At the turn of the century, the United States embarked on the project of building a canal across the isthmus of Panama, hoping to carve a faster transcontinental shipping route and to cement the United States’ strategic dominance in the region. Americans might remember George Goethals, the chief engineer who oversaw the canal to its completion, but probably do not remember the more than 100,000 West Indian laborers whose sweat actually dug the “big ditch.” The Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the U.S. military-run governing body supervising the construction, recruited migrant laborers from across the West Indies, primarily Barbados and Jamaica. They perceived these workers as desirable due to their English language, low wages, prior experience with a French canal construction attempt in the 1880s, and racialized beliefs that Black workers were less susceptible to tropical disease.

Americans are even less likely to know the social apparatus that surrounded the construction — a racially segregated company town that, with few exceptions, divided the labor force into a “Gold roll” for White workers and a “Silver roll” for Black ones. In a usual year, there were around 5,000 workers on the “Gold roll.” These White Americans worked skilled jobs as foremen, engineers and administrators, and received free, high-quality housing, food and recreation provided by the ICC.

Black West Indian or Silver roll workers, on the other hand, received only substandard food in outdoor mess halls. According to a food supplier from Omaha, “the only difference” between the food provided for Silver roll workers and “the way I feed my hogs is that the food was put on a tin plate instead of in a trough.” Silver roll workers could not stay in Gold roll hotels, nor enter the local YMCA. They received no paid vacation or sick leave. Single Black men lived in overcrowded barracks and were assigned to the most dangerous construction jobs, such as the notoriously deadly excavation of the Culebra Cut.

When they died on the job — West Indian workers accounted for more than 80 percent of the total deaths during construction — they were buried in unkempt, segregated cemeteries, often in unmarked graves. The Sanitary Division occasionally attempted to identify these men, but the combination of poor record-keeping, grisly deaths that left bodies unidentifiable and the general indifference toward Black workers, left many unaccounted for. Most deaths were accidents, but they were accidents endemic to a project governed by carelessness about workers’ lives.

The gap in services and mistreatment of Silver roll workers meant that everyday life and work on the canal depended on support systems outside of formal labor agreements. When the United States failed to supply adequate provisions, Black West Indian women stepped up. They fed, cared for and sustained Silver laborers.

In the earliest years of construction, authorities worried about labor retention and considered the benefit of having West Indian women brought to the zone along with men, surmising that West Indian men “won’t work anyplace without their women.” Although they would later discourage Black women’s migration, they understood from the beginning the necessity of their labor.

Women cooked and sold foods to West Indian men underfed by segregated ICC cafeterias, using produce that the mess halls, dependent on commissary goods imported from the United States, could not procure. West Indian women had knowledge of local produce and farmed small plots where they grew familiar foods such as ackee, breadfruit, soursop and yucca. Amos Clarke, a West Indian Silver roll worker, described the work of market women as an essential part of his routine: “In those days, there were no restaurants. Two colored women carried trays on their head with hot coffee, bread and butter to the workplace in the morning time. The name of these two Jamaican women, one Mariam Cunningson and one Caroline Lowe.”

West Indian women maintained homes outside of company housing after the ICC stopped providing family housing for Silver roll workers. Women supplemented, and sometimes surpassed, their partner’s incomes by performing paid domestic labor for White Americans. The ICC encouraged women’s labor — for which it provided no compensation — to relieve their own burden in supporting the Silver roll workforce.

West Indian women were equally central to the survival of White Americans on-site, who in the early construction years depended on the provisions of West Indian market women, as they had scant access to fresh foods from the commissary. West Indian women took care of White American children and cleaned Americans’ homes, physically maintaining the image of the “orderly” American domestic sphere. As Sue Core, a White American woman, remembered, these workers “form the backbone of the labor setup which keeps the Panama Canal going.”

Although unsung, West Indian women’s labor made possible the United States’ imperial project of infrastructure which, upon its completion, generated enormous profit for U.S. investors, consumers and transporters and revolutionized global shipping and supply chains by lowering the cost of transcontinental transport.

This dynamic was not limited to Panama. The construction of supply chain infrastructure such as canals, highways and railroads has historically echoed this arrangement — an extractive, racialized and often migratory labor supply, accompanied by women’s informal, but essential, care and domestic labor.

Today, the initiatives that are most at risk of being excluded from the final Build Back Better legislation — affordable housing, paid family leave, home-based care for the elderly and disabled, and an extension of the expanded child tax credit beyond one year — are precisely the critical areas that expand welfare for working families and broadly support infrastructure workers.

Without access to housing, sustenance and health care, without support for their lives outside of work, those who keep the supply chain running will be unable to do so. As in Panama, this work will continue to be performed, whether the bill funds it or not, by those most vulnerable — working-class women of color. West Indian women’s essential labor in Panama in 1914 remained underpaid, denigrated and difficult. They lived at constant risk of destitution and disease, and faced criminalization and deportation from U.S. authorities.

By refusing to address social welfare, it will once again be women who bear the costs of a negligent government and face the dangers that come along with this burden, from poverty to increased health risks. The Build Back Better bill is a chance to reassess our priorities, aid those who provide care work and, in the process, ease the lives of those workers who power the supply chain.