ChainMail | Automation Adrift

At U.S. ports, tension continues over use of robotics

ChainMail | Automation Adrift

When West Coast dockworkers ratified a new six-year union contract recently, they saved Christmas. There won’t be any work stoppages gumming up the arrival of cargo shipments from Asia. Left unclear was the longer-term issue of whether more machines would join humans to unload and load freight.

Shipping companies, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), want to invest in more automation. They are fiercely opposed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which fears job-killing robots.

While The Wall Street Journal reported in April that the two sides had reached some sort of agreement on automation, details weren’t released when the contract was ratified on August 31. Several docks at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach employ automation, but the vast majority of tasks at the ports are performed by humans. At Asian ports, by comparison, automation is prevalent. For the U.S., future productivity is on the line.

When I asked Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, about what the new contract says about automation, he declined to discuss particulars while acknowledging concerns over job security.

“I’ll leave that to the parties to the contract, both the ILWU and the PMA, as they see fit to discuss this issue publicly,” Seroka said. “But from where I sit, it is the most polarizing conversation we have in our industry. The Port of Los Angeles and our leadership here in the city of Los Angeles have been very straightforward on this subject. We know technology is moving forward very fast — robotics, information sharing, etc. The simple ask of us is that we cannot leave the workforce behind.”

Tension over automation’s impact on jobs spans the economy. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is striking against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (Chrysler’s parent). Among other issues, the UAW is worried about the industrial transition to electric vehicle manufacturing. Electric vehicle production requires 30% to 40% less labor than conventional vehicle production.

The ports of L.A. and Long Beach have a smart idea about how to both encourage productivity and protect jobs: skill training. The State of California this year pledged $110 million to help fund a logistics industry training program at ports to help dockworkers, truck drivers, and warehouse employees learn to work with equipment related to zero-emissions operations. “We’re trying to go out here into uncharted waters, and bring everybody with us,” Seroka said.

It’s not hard to imagine training programs being expanded as more technology comes to the ports, because the arrival of more automation is inevitable.

Read the complete Issue 44 of ChainMail here.

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