US labor dispute: Dockworkers say ‘no’ to port automation

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Union negotiations for 22,000 West Coast dockworkers are worrying US industries which fear trade disruptions. The dockers’ union says automated ports kill jobs and are less productive.

The contract for 22,000 West Coast dockworkers expired on July 1 and negotiations for a new contract are said to have stalled. A key issue for workers and employers is one that has plagued ports for six decades: automation.

Terminal operators and ocean carriers say automated technology in ports is necessary to keep the United States competitive. Yet the Dockworkers’ Union argues that while automated ports kill jobs and disempower workers, they don’t even lead to increased productivity.

“I love the job, but the sad thing is that a lot of jobs have been lost because of it,” said Rebecca Schlarb, automation coordinator at the Long Beach Container Terminal. , one of two automated ports in the western United States. Coast, says DW.

Stalled negotiations
The labor agreement being negotiated covers workers at 29 ports in California, Oregon and Washington state. This includes two of the nation’s busiest ports at Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The Wall Street Journal reported that labor talks, which began May 10 in San Francisco, are currently stalled due to a jurisdictional dispute at the Port of Seattle between the bargaining union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and a separate machinists’ union. .

As they often are, these negotiations are incredibly high stakes. US President Joe Biden has met with both negotiating sides to encourage smooth talks, to avoid months-long shipment delays resulting from earlier disagreements between the union and employers in 2002 and 2014.

US ports are already strained due to supply chain disruptions, operating at full capacity and handling record volumes in the past two years of the pandemic. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were ranked among the least efficient in the world in the 2021 Container Port Performance Index by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The union and the 70 terminal operators and shipping carriers represented in negotiations by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) agreed to a media blackout during labor talks, but issued a joint statement in July announcing that they had a tentative agreement on health benefits. .

The stalled talks mean the ILWU and PMA have yet to agree on wages and the key issue of automation.

A decades-old conflict
The question of whether more remote-controlled cranes, autonomous vehicles and other automated technologies should be brought to West Coast ports is at the center of the current labor dispute.

Two automated ports reside on the West Coast of the United States in the San Pedro Bay complex: the Trans-Pacific Container Service Corporation (TraPac) at the Port of Los Angeles and the Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) at the Port of Long Beach.

Even though automation requires massive up-front investments, the PMA says the changes are essential for U.S. ports to increase their dwindling efficiency. PMA chairman Jim McKenna told the Bloomberg news agency it was “the key to long-term survival, long-term competitiveness.”

The ILWU, on the other hand, has argued for years that automated technologies are job killers for their members. The introduction of machinery by employers stripped workers of their power on the docks and weakened the union.

Indeed, the issue has been at the center of labor negotiations for more than six decades. The massive cranes, freighters, and rectangular containers that dot coastlines around the world were an innovation, or automation, of the mid-twentieth century.

Prior to the 1960s, during the break-bulk era of shipping, stevedores loaded and unloaded cargo in crates, nets or on wooden pallets. It was meticulous, dangerous and time-consuming work that required a large number of dockworkers.

The ILWU and the PMA reached an agreement in 1960 to allow fledgling technologies on the ports, but neither party expected how automation would transform work on the waterfront. Tens of thousands of longshoreman jobs were cut from the ports when employers decided to cut labor costs.

In 1971, a few years after so-called containerization really took hold in the ports, West Coast dockworkers had had enough of their deteriorating jobs and waged the longest strike in union history. – 134 days. It was the first such coordinated strike for the union, closing ports along the coast.

While workers won wage increases, automation remained on the table, and in the decades that followed, the ILWU gave in to increasingly automated technology in the ports. More recently, in 2008, the union explicitly accepted machine automation technology in its collective agreement.

More robots, less productivity
Employers insist that automation will not kill jobs. The PMA commissioned a report showing that the two automated west coast port terminals, TraPac and LBCT, have actually seen a 31.5% increase in paid hours for dock workers, in addition to processing containers twice as fast than non-automated ports.

But workers and union researchers dispute both findings. Patrick Burns, a senior fellow at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Economics Roundtable, told DW that the influx of shipping volume over the past two years has masked the loss of jobs in the two terminals.

Taking into account the hours of labor per container that passed through ports, Burns and his colleague Daniel Flaming found in their report “Someone Else’s Ocean” – which was underwritten by the ILWU – that automation reduced the employment of 37% to 52% at LBCT, and 34% to 37% at TraPac.

Nearly 580 jobs were lost at ports in 2020 and 2021, “a huge and staggering amount of job loss”, according to Burns.

Schlarb has been a dockworker since 1991 and was the first woman to be elected as a trade agent for ILWU Local 63. She describes her job as “bittersweet” because while she loves the job, it’s clear to her that automation technology has cut many port jobs.

According to her, if LBCT were a conventional port, it would have 138 crane operators and 69 flagmen. But with automated technology, “flaggers have been eliminated and now crane operators are down to 14 in a remote location.”

Burns and Schlarb explained that job losses have a negative effect on surrounding communities.

“These are the types of jobs where you can get health coverage, buy a house and maybe send your kid to college,” Burns said, adding that “these types of jobs are extremely valuable to the region. “.

Ironically, Burns’ research also found that automated ports were 7-15% less productive than non-automated ports.

Schlarb’s own experience confirms the findings. If cranes experience mechanical failures, she said, or autonomous ground vehicles lose connection to the wireless network, for example, repairs are less seamless and disruptions are more severe than at non-automated ports.

“Cranes fall down quite often, and if one crane fails, for a mechanic to get in safely, both cranes [in the specific bay] and other adjacent cranes also need to be shut down,” Schlarb explained. “Now you have thousands of containers in the two blocks while repairs are underway. In a conventional operation you would lose that bay where the crane broke down and it would only have been 30 containers.

Schlarb thinks workers across the economy should care about automation. Even as an automation coordinator, Schlarb doesn’t think automation is always the answer. “Just because you can get something done doesn’t mean you have to,” she said.

Some things, she says, work better the old-fashioned way. “There’s nothing more beautiful to watch than a group of longshoremen executing a plan,” she added.
Source: DW

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