A West Coast port workers union is fighting robots. The stakes are very high

Shipping containers are transported by automated guided vehicles (AGVs) next to gantry cranes on the dock at Delta Terminal, operated by Europe Container Terminals BV (ECT), at the Port of Rotterdam in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | beautiful pictures

Last year, the sight of dozens of huge container ships moored for weeks off the coast of Los Angeles rocked the shipping industry and added to supply chain disruptions around the world. Most of the ships, mainly from Asia, are waiting to enter the supported ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and unload tens of thousands of colorful containers filled with everything from toys to Toyotas. More than 30% of all U.S. containerized imports pass through these two facilities, which together form the nation’s largest port complex.

Lifting that cargo, from ship to shore and to waiting destinations near and far, is the job of dockworkers of the International Long-distance and Logistics Union (ILWU) – and currently being included in a logjam of their own. The union represents more than 22,000 shorers at 29 West Coast ports and berths; about 13,000 people work at 12 ports along Southern California’s San Pedro Bay. Since the beginning of May, ILWU has been stuck in contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents 70 shipping companies and port and harbor operators.

The current ILWU contract, enacted in 2015, expires on July 1. While negotiations continue, both sides have at least allayed concerns about possible delays or disruptions to work. work – which will only exacerbate the persistent backlog of ports – by jointly declaring in mid-June that “neither side is prepared to strike or to strike.”

Typical of labor negotiations, wages are an issue, although ILWU members are among the highest paid union workers in the country, averaging $195,000 a year plus benefits. benefits, according to the PMA. More controversial is the automation of container handling machinery, an emerging trend at ports and terminals worldwide.

PMA wants to expand the use of previously agreed-upon remote-controlled cranes, used to lift containers onto and off ships and transfer them to and from coastal piles, and surrounding container yard tractors. around stations, including trailers and trains. Association has released a related research in May, stated that “increasing automation will allow the largest West Coast ports to remain competitive, facilitate cargo and job growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” glass to meet stringent local environmental standards.”

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – OCTOBER 27: A general view of shipping containers and the cranes moving them at the Port of Rotterdam on October 27, 2017 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe with an area of ​​105 square kilometers or 41 square miles and stretches over a distance of 40 kilometers or 25 miles. It is one of the busiest ports in the world handling thousands of containers of goods every day. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

Dean Mouhtaropoulos | Getty Images News | beautiful pictures

One report prepared by the Economic Roundtable and underwritten by the ILWU Long Coast Division, published on 30 June, disputes many points in the PMA study, specifically stating that port automation eliminate jobs. “We often think that technology and automation are synonymous with progress, but after looking at the evidence from ports around the world, this is not a matter of gain-lose, but a matter of gain-loss. to both workers and the American public”. Daniel Flaming, chair of the Economic Roundtable and co-author of the report, in an email to CNBC. “Automating the docks does not save costs or increase productivity, but it does allow foreign shipping giants to avoid the hassle of dealing with American workers and the union that represents them.”

The various reports not only document the ongoing ILWU-PMA contract negotiations, but also more broadly counter the arguments for and against automation dating back to the dawn of the public revolution. industrialized in the United States in the late 1700s, when mechanized textile mills opened, purging many workers. Three centuries on, the problem of machines replacing human labor continues to affect almost every area of ​​business, from car manufacturing to zoo care.

The most rudimentary – and commonly adopted – type of automation in port and terminal operations is the computerization and digitization of forms, data, record keeping and administrative functions. other. This innovation has replaced employees who manually write or type such information, but has also created new IT jobs. As much as electronic medical records have become commonplace in the healthcare industry, process automation is the norm in shipping.

The implementation of automated container handling and handling devices, including operating software and more recently augmented and virtual reality, is relatively new. In 2020, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said there are 939 container ports in the world. However, last year, according to a Report of the International Transport Forum, only about 53 are automated, accounting for 4% of the total global container port capacity. Most of them have been around since the 2010s and more than half are located in Asia and Europe.

There is a distinction between fully and semi-automatic terminals. Fully automatic refers to various equipment handling containers, mainly cranes and yard tractors. They do not require an on-board operator, and are instead operated remotely by humans in control towers, monitoring screens and cameras. Although it may be necessary for shipbuilders to manually fix the crane hook to a cargo box or container to the frame of a truck or wagon. A semi-automatic terminal usually has a remote-controlled crane and a human-operated yard tractor.

In 1993, the Dutch port complex in Rotterdam became the first to introduce machine automation and has since become the model for a fully automated terminal. Today, some of the busiest foreign ports in the world have some degree of automation, including those in Shanghai, Singapore, Antwerp and Hamburg.

Operators in the US have been slower to automate, for a variety of reasons, but union opposition remains the main issue. In the 2002 contract, after the PMA allowed a 10-day lockout, ILWU agreed to automate the process by computer. In 2008, in exchange for a nearly $900 million addition to pension funds and other retirement benefits, the union agreed that operators, at their discretion, could automatically machinery.

West Coast goers also have a substantial financial safety net. The current employment contract includes a pay plan that guarantees a weekly income of up to 40 hours if a qualified ILWU member is unable to obtain a full-time job for any reason, including self-employment. automation. This weekly income is guaranteed until retirement.

In 2016, the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles became the first US port to be fully automated. More recently, parts of the APM Terminal facilities in Los Angeles and the Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) were also fully automated.

In this latest round of negotiations, ILWU is asking operators to stop further automation in San Pedro Bay ports. Its objection is raised in the Economic Roundtable report and is opposed in the PMA’s. So far, neither side has given up and the two sides have begun shutting down communications during the negotiations.

Meanwhile, there are three semi-automated ports on the East Seaboard – two in Norfolk, Virginia, and one in New York Harbor and the New Jersey terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey. Those who dock at those facilities are members of the International Seafarers Association (ILA), which represents nearly 65,000 members at ports along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The ILA is not part of the ILWU negotiations, but similarly opposes further automation.

It’s completely normal for unions to protect members’ jobs in the docks protecting members’ jobs. “A conservative analysis of job losses found that automation eliminated 572 equivalent full-time jobs annually at LBCT and TraPac in 2020 and 2021,” the ILWU-funded study said.

Likewise, port and terminal operators want to improve efficiency and productivity through automation, especially at high-volume ports with limited future cargo capacity and where Transporters are frustrated by long waiting times to unload containers. Executives argue that job losses could be offset by retraining and upskilling existing workers to run automated systems, leading to increased wages and improved safety. In fact, PMA is building a 20,000 square foot training center for ILWU workers. Plus, new tech-related jobs, such as data analysts and software developers, will need to be filled.

“The fear that automation will hurt union workers is understandable, but not the school,” said Michael Nacht, professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley and co-author of the PMA. In any case it leads to massive job loss. report. “Direct comparison of data shows the same number of workers in automated and non-automated facilities,” he said, citing separate reports on automation from McKinsey and Company and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On the other hand, not every gate is a candidate for automation, in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Upfront capital costs can run into the billions of dollars for new equipment and infrastructure, whether retrofitting an existing terminal or building a new one from scratch. And depending on the port’s geographic location, the type of cargo it handles, and the volume of containers moving in and out, it can be more cost-effective to improve manual operating systems.

Automation, of all global industries, has historically proven to be an unwavering driver, so expansion in ports and terminals over the next 5 to 10 years seems unlikely. is inevitable. “One thing the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed is how fragile some supply chains in and out of ports are,” said the chief executive of a port operator, who requested anonymity because of the relationship. relations with unions and operators. “For us to be responsible service providers, we need to find more resilience, and automation can do that. Hopefully we can find a way around that.” [the ILWU-PMA contract negotiations] common sense and make things better for everyone. That would be a good result. “

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