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

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

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The sighting of dozens of giant shipping containers anchored off the coast of Los Angeles for weeks last year shook the shipping industry and increased disruption to supply chains. Most of the ships, mainly from Asia, were waiting to enter ports already secured in Los Angeles and Long Beach and unload dozens of multicolored containers packed with everything from toys to Toyotas. More than 30% of all US containerized marine imports pass through the two facilities, which comprise the nation’s largest port complex.

Getting that cargo from ship to shore and to waiting destinations near and far is the job of dockers who are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and today they’re pretty much on their own. The union represents more than 22,000 shippers at 29 ports and terminals up and down the West Coast; About 13,000 people work in the 12 ports of San Pedro Bay in Southern California. Since early May, the ILWU has been deadlocked in contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents 70 shipping lines and port and terminal operators.

The ILWU contract, which went into effect in 2015, expired on July 1. As talks continue, both sides have at least allayed fears of a slowdown or stoppage of work — which would only add to the port’s lingering backlog — by jointly signaling in mid-June. “Neither party is preparing for a strike or a shutdown.”

As is typical of labor negotiations, wages are an issue, even though ILWU members are among the best-paid union workers in the country, averaging $195,000 a year plus benefits, according to PMA. More controversial is the topic of the automation of container handling machines, an emerging trend in ports and terminals around the world.

PMA wants to expand the use of pre-agreed cranes, which lift containers to and from containers and transfer them to and from dry stacks, and yard tractors, tractor trailers and tractors that transport containers around terminals. train cars The association released a related study in May that said “increased automation will enable the West Coast’s largest ports to remain competitive, facilitate cargo and job growth, and meet stringent local environmental standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS – OCTOBER 27: Shipping ships and cranes moving in the port of Rotterdam on October 27, 2017 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe, with an area of ​​105 square kilometers or 41 square miles and a length of 40 kilometers or 25 miles. It is one of the busiest ports in the world handling thousands of cargo containers every day. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Dean Mouhtaropoulos | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A report released June 30 prepared by the Economic Desk and underwritten by the ILWU’s Coast Longshore Division disputes many of the points in the PMA study, particularly stating that port automation is eliminating jobs. “We often think of technology and automation as synonymous with progress, but after looking at the evidence at ports around the world, this is not a win-lose issue, but a lose-lose issue for workers and the American public,” he said. Daniel Flaming, chairman of the Economic Desk and co-author of the report, in an email to CNBC. “Automation of shipping terminals isn’t more profitable or productive, but it allows foreign shipping giants to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with American workers and the union that represents them.”

The divergent reports not only document ILWU-PMA contract negotiations, but more broadly renew the arguments for and against automation from the beginning of the American industrial revolution in the late 1700s, when mechanized textile mills opened, wiping out large numbers of workers. After three centuries, the issue of machines replacing human workers continues to affect every business sector, from car manufacturing to animal husbandry.

The most basic—and universally accepted—type of automation in seaport and terminal operations is the computerization and digitization of forms, data, records, and other administrative functions. This innovation has replaced the workers who typed or typed this information by hand, but it has also created new IT jobs. As electronic medical records have become ubiquitous in the healthcare industry, process automation is standard in delivery.

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

A distinction is made between fully and semi-automated terminals. They are fully automated container handling equipment, mainly cranes and yard tractors. They do not require a human operator on board, and are instead operated remotely by humans on control towers, monitoring screens and cameras. Although dockworkers are needed to manually fix the hooks of a crane on a container or a container on a truck chassis or rail car. A semi-automated terminal generally includes remote-controlled cranes and human-powered yard tractors.

In 1993, the Dutch port complex of Rotterdam was the first to introduce machine automation and has since become a 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.

US operators have been slower to automate for a variety of reasons, but union resistance remains primary. In the 2002 contract, after the PMA authorized a 10-day lockout, the ILWU adopted a computerized automated process. In 2008, in exchange for adding nearly $900 million to its pension fund and other retirement benefits, the union agreed that operators could, at their discretion, implement machine automation.

West Coast boaters also have an important financial safety net. The current labor contract includes a wage guarantee plan that guarantees income for 40 hours per week if an eligible ILWU member is unable to obtain full-time employment for any reason, including automation. This weekly income is guaranteed until retirement.

In 2016, Los Angeles’ TraPac terminal became the first US port to become fully automated. Recently, a portion of the facilities at the APM Terminal in Los Angeles and the Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) were also fully automated.

In this latest round of talks, the ILWU is urging operators to support more automation at San Pedro Bay ports. His objections are contained in the report of the Economic Committee, and are against the PMA. So far, both sides have not accepted, and they have initiated a mutual media blackout during the negotiations.

Meanwhile, there are three semi-automated ports on the East Coast: two in Norfolk, Virginia, and one at the Port of New York and New Jersey terminal in New Jersey. Port workers at these facilities are members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which represents nearly 65,000 members in East Coast and Gulf of Mexico ports. The ILA is not part of the ILWU negotiations, but is equally opposed to further automation.

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

Port and terminal operators are also looking to boost efficiency and productivity through automation, especially in high-volume ports with limited future cargo capacity and long wait times for truckers to load and unload containers. Operators say job losses can be offset by better training and education for current workers to run automated systems, increased pay and improved safety. In fact, PMA is building a 20,000 square meter training center for ILWU workers. Additionally, new technology-related jobs will need to be filled, such as data analysts and software developers.

“The fear that automation will hurt union workers is understandable, but it’s not the case that it will lead to massive job losses,” said Michael Nacht, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the PMA. the report “A direct comparison of the data shows the same number of workers in automated and non-automated facilities,” he said, citing reports on automation by McKinsey and Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On the other hand, not all ports are candidates for automation in terms of cost-benefit analyses. Upfront capital expenditures can run into the billions for new equipment and infrastructure, renovating an existing terminal or building it from scratch. And depending on the geographic location of the port, the type of cargo it handles, and the volume of containers moving in and out, upgrading to manually operated systems can be more cost-effective.

Automation, in all global industries, has historically proven to be an indispensable force, so its expansion in ports and terminals over the next five to 10 years seems inevitable. “One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic revealed is how fragile some supply chains are at ports,” said an executive at a terminal operating company, who requested anonymity because of ties to unions and operators. “To be responsible service providers, we need to find more resilience, and automation can do that. Hopefully, we can find our way. [the ILWU-PMA contract negotiations] collectively and make things better for everyone. That would be a good result.”

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

Source link A West Coast port workers’ union is fighting robots. The stakes are high

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