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Port Automation Sparks Heated Debate Ahead of USWC Labor Talks

The topic of terminal automation is heating up as the West Coast longshore labor talks begin today. With diametrically opposed views, the topic of automation is expected to be a contentious issue that could extend the talks past the July 1st expiration date. In a series of statements made by both sides, the issue of port automation has evolved into a philosophical clash whose potential to upset this year’s negotiations has led to the diversion of tens of thousands of containers to the East and Gulf coast ports.

How the subject of port automation will disrupt the talks between port management and the labor union remains uncertain. However, the container lines, who dominate the Pacific Maritime Association Board, could easily fund a significant expansion in pay and benefits for the labor union, enabling both sides to come to a deal and sidestep the automation topic all together. Biden Administration officials will also be in San Francisco, where the talks are being held, to observe the labor talks as they see continued port disruption and its impact on inflation as a major political liability ahead of mid-term elections later this year.

At the beginning of May, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) released a study noting that automation is the only possible way for marine terminals such as Los Angeles and Long Beach to expand their capacity, due to their urban location limiting their physical ability to enlarge. The study also points out that the productivity per-acre at the two automated terminals in Southern California has been 44 percent higher than non-automated terminals.

Dockworkers’ response to automation, on the other hand, has been nothing short of cold. Once PMA released their study, the dockworkers responded in a letter from the ILWU President released on Facebook last week, “Some of these shipping companies are...attempting to automate the U.S. terminals they lease -- using robots instead of American workers to operate the heavy equipment that moves cargo. Other ports have tried this and found that automation not only kills good jobs but does not move more cargo. In addition to a loss of jobs, automation poses a great national security risk as it places our ports at risk of being hacked as other automated ports have experienced.”

Another ILWU representative responding to the PMA study, complained that automation has destroyed longshore jobs. The complainant claims that container volume has in fact increased at the automated terminals but only at the expense of other terminals and that the increased productivity that the PMA is claiming has meant less work for longshore workers at other terminals.

Although the union representing the dockworkers signed a contract in 2008, allowing automation, the current trajectory of the issue suggests that the union was focused mainly on the maintenance and repair issues important to them at the time. The contract signed in 2008 allowed for automated cargo handling at TraPac and APMT in Los Angeles and Long Beach but during the planning for the APMT project the first sign of opposition from the union came to light. Several ILWU locals organized a vocal rally to pressure the Board of Harbor Commissioners to deny the construction permit, but in the end the permit was granted, and the voices of the protesters fell on deaf ears. However, in 2021 three ILWU locals went to public with a press release denouncing automation after they became aware that the TTI terminal at Long Beach intended to embrace automation as well.

ILWU’s counterparts on the East Coast of the US, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), have also come up against the issue of automation, except they limited the terminals’ right to automate. In an ILWU convention in 2021 the ILA president, Harold Daggett, encouraged his west coast comrades to resist automation saying, “There’s no nice way to say it. Automation means the elimination of your jobs, forever”.

The bottom line is that port management sees automation as a way to increase the effectiveness of the port and solidify its place in the future, while the dockworkers see automation as a threat to their jobs and their ability to provide for their families. Due to these differing opinions, industry experts expect the negotiations to take some time and will surely be challenging. Regardless of the outcome, ClearFreight remains ready to assist and ensure our valuable customers’ cargo gets to its destination safely, expeditiously, and cost-effectively. Contact our team today to learn how our decades of experience and our specialized supply chain solutions can make logistics easier for you.

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