A West Coast port worker fighting union robots. The stakes are high for the supply chain

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

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Last year the sight of dozens of giant container ships anchored for weeks off the coast of Los Angeles shook the shipping industry and exacerbated the worldwide disruption of supply chains. Most ships, mainly bound from Asia, waited to enter the already supported ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and unloaded thousands of multicolored containers with everything from toys to toytas. More than 30% of all containerized US maritime imports pass through the two facilities, which together comprise the nation’s largest port complex.

That cargo from ship to shore and anxiously awaiting destinations near and far is the work of dockworkers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) – and who are currently embroiled in an impasse of their own. The union represents more than 22,000 longshoremen in 29 ports and terminals up and down the West Coast; About 13,000 are employed at 12 ports in Southern California’s San Pedro Bay. Since the beginning of May, the ILWU remains at a standstill contract negotiation Along with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents 70 shipping companies and port and terminal operators.

The current ILWU contract, enacted in 2015, expires on July 1, while negotiations continue, with both sides allaying fears of at least one possible work slowdown or halt – which will only add to the port’s persistent backlog – United in mid-June saying that “neither party is preparing for a strike or a lockdown.”

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

PMA seeks to expand a previously agreed-upon approach to the use of remotely controlled cranes, which lift containers up and over ships and move them to and from landside stacks and to yard tractors, which shuttle around terminals. There are containers, which involve turning on and off tractor trailers. Railcar. The association issued a related study in May, claiming that “increased automation will enable the largest West Coast ports to remain competitive, facilitate both cargo and job growth, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to meet stringent local environmental standards.” will reduce it.”

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – OCTOBER 27: A general view of shipping containers and cranes carrying them to the port of Rotterdam on October 27, 2017 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe covering 105 square kilometers or 41 square miles and spanning a distance of 40 kilometers or 25 miles. It is one of the busiest ports in the world handling thousands of cargo containers daily. (Photo by Dean Mohtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Dean Mohtroopoulos | Getty Images News | Getty Images

a report good Underwritten by the ILWU’s Coast Longshore Division, prepared by the Economic Roundtable and released on June 30, the PMA disputes several points in the study, notably stating that port automation eliminates jobs. “We often think that technology and automation are synonymous with progress, but after looking at the evidence from ports around the world, it is not a win-win issue, but a lose-lose issue for both workers and the American public, ” What was said. In an email to CNBC, Daniel Fleming, chairman of the Economic Roundtable and co-author of the report. “Automation of shipping terminals is not cost-effective or more productive, but it enables foreign shipping giants to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with American workers and the union that represents them.”

Separate reports not only document the ongoing ILWU-PMA contract negotiations, but more broadly reiterate the arguments for and against automation at the beginning of America’s industrial revolution in the late 1700s, when mechanized Textile mills are opened, due to which the score of laborers is purified. For three centuries, the issue of machines replacing human workers has affected most every business sector, from auto manufacturing to zookeeping.

The most primary – and universally adopted – type of automation in port and terminal operations is the computerization and digitization of forms, data, record-keeping and other administrative functions. This innovation has replaced clerks who manually typed or typed such information, but also created new IT jobs. As electronic medical records have become ubiquitous in the health care industry, process automation is standard in shipping.

The implementation of automated container-handling and transport equipment, including operating software and, more recently, augmented reality and virtual reality technologies, is relatively nascent. In 2020, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated that there are 939 container ports in the world. so far last year, according to a International Transport Forum reportOf , only about 53 were automated, representing 4% of total global container terminal capacity. Most of them have emerged since 2010 and more than half are located in Asia and Europe.

There is a difference between fully and semi-automatic terminals. Fully automatic refers to the various equipment that handle containers, primarily cranes and yard tractors. They do not require human operators onboard, and are instead operated remotely by humans in control towers, monitoring screens and cameras. However dockworkers may need to manually secure the hook of the crane from the container or container to the truck chassis or railcar. A semi-automatic terminal typically consists of a remote-controlled crane and a human-powered 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, the world’s busiest foreign ports have some degree of machine automation, including Shanghai, Singapore, Antwerp and Hamburg.

U.S. for many reasons Operators in the U.S. have been slow to automate, but union resistance remains the primary. In its 2002 contract, ILWU agreed to computerized process automation after the PMA authorized a 10-day lockout. In 2008, in exchange for approximately $900 million in addition to their pension funds and other retirement benefits, the consortium agreed that operators could, at their discretion, implement machine automation.

West Coast longshoremen also have a significant financial safety net. The current labor contract includes a pay-guarantee scheme that ensures up to 40 hours of weekly income if an eligible ILWU member is unable to find full-time work, including automation, for any reason. This weekly income is guaranteed till retirement.

In 2016, the Trapac terminal in Los Angeles became the first US port to be fully automated. Until recently, part of the APM Terminal facility in Los Angeles and the Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) were also fully automated.

In this latest round of talks, ILWU is asking operators to put a moratorium on further automation in the San Pedro Bay ports. Its objections are placed in the Economic Roundtable Report, and are counted in the PMA. To date, neither side has acknowledged, and has mutually initiated a media blackout during the negotiations.

Meanwhile, there are three semi-automated ports on the Eastern Seaboard – two in Norfolk, Virginia, and one at the Port of New York and the New Jersey Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey. The dockworkers at those facilities are members of the International Longshoremen Association (ILA), which represents approximately 65,000 members on the ports of the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The ILA is not part of the ILWU negotiations, but similarly opposes further automation.

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

Similarly, port and terminal operators seek to boost efficiency and productivity through automation, particularly at high-volume ports that have limited future cargo capacity and where truckers take long hours to load and unload containers. Disappointed to wait. Operators argue that job losses can be compensated by re-skilling and upskilling existing employees to run automated systems, which will lead to increased pay and improved safety. Actually PMA is building a 20,000 square feet training center for ILWU workers. Also, new technology-related jobs, such as data analysts and software developers, will have to be filled.

“The fear is understandable that automation would harm union workers, but not that it causes major job losses,” said Michael Nacht, a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley and co-author of the PMA. report good. “Direct comparison of the data shows the same number of workers at automated and non-automated facilities,” he said, citing separate reports on automation McKinsey & Company And this Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

On the other hand, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, not every port is a candidate for automation. Up-front capital expenditures for new equipment and infrastructure can run into the billions, whether retrofitting or re-building an existing terminal. And depending on the geographic location of the port, the type of cargo it handles and the amount of containers it moves in and out, improving a manually operated system may be more cost-effective.

Automation, across all global industries, has historically proven to be a rigid force, so its expansion to ports and terminals in the next five to 10 years seems inevitable. “One thing the COVID-19 pandemic revealed is how fragile some supply chains are in and out of ports,” said an executive at a terminal operations company, requesting anonymity because of the relationship with unions and operators. did. “For us to be responsible service providers, we need to find more flexibility, and automation can do that. Hopefully we can find our way through [the ILWU-PMA contract negotiations] Collectively and make things better for all. It would be a good result.”