Ahead of the holiday season, workers at America’s busiest ports battle robots

Automation has become a hot topic in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The shipping industry is pushing for greater automation of ship loading and unloading work. But dockworkers warn robots will only kill American jobs. Philip Cheung for NPR

It’s an endless line of massive ships stacked with colorful containers coming and going from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach these days.

This bustling scene is not unexpected as the volume of cargo crossing the Pacific Ocean has hit new records during the pandemic.

The shipping industry says it needs to automate more of the work of loading and unloading ships to keep pace.

One of the main goals is to prevent a recurrence of last year’s supply chain issues as the holidays approach. It was a full-screen nightmare scene – ships laden with cargo floating off the coast of Southern California because there were no empty berths and no space on the docks to put more containers. It was a complete stalemate.

But talk to dockers about automation and it elicits howls of indignation. They say robots are not the answer. They warn that automation will only kill American jobs.

At a time when the stakes are high at America’s busiest ports, robots are at the heart of contract talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 22,000 dockworkers up and down the West Coast, and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 70 ocean carriers and terminal operators.

Talks began in May. The last contract expired on July 1. Both parties have agreed not to interrupt the work. But in the past, negotiations have devolved into slowdowns and lockouts, which have brought trade to a screeching halt. This time around, both parties are well aware that any disruption could wreak economic havoc just as the holiday shopping season kicks off.

Dockworkers have already seen what automation has meant for jobs

“Whenever there’s a rumor about a new terminal even considering automation, people get scared,” says Jimmy Monti, a crane operator for 24 years at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Monti has never worked on an automated terminal. But already, he has seen the impact. Since 2015, driverless vehicles, automated storage cranes and other robots have started to replace truck drivers and forklift operators at several terminals in the port complex.

Yvette Bjazevic, another dock veteran who now works in the union dispatch room, warns that it’s not just workers who lose out when jobs go to robots.

“These machines don’t contribute to taxes. They don’t contribute to the local economy,” she says. “I think everyone should be a little outraged.”

While there are efficiencies to be had with automation, she asks, who really benefits? She points out that container shipping is dominated by foreign companies, names like Maersk, Evergreen and China Ocean Shipping. The more goods that come into the United States, the more profits that go out overseas.

EU-funded research finds big job losses due to automation

In a union-funded study, the nonprofit research organization Economic Roundtable calculated the amount of work lost at two automated terminals, Long Beach Container Terminal and TraPac.

In what the researchers call a conservative estimate, the study found that automation eliminated 572 full-time equivalent jobs per year in 2020 and 2021.

To be clear, no unionized dockworkers were laid off in those years. As part of their contract, ILWU workers have a guaranteed base salary whether or not there is work. And due to the recent increase in freight, there has been a lot of work to do.

However, the workers who stand to lose are the “contingent workers”, a large number of freelancers who take any remaining jobs after union members choose the job. Casuals are the pipeline for the next generation of union members. They must work their way up to union membership, a process that already takes years and could take longer if the amount of work available at the docks decreases.

“If this spread to other terminals, it would decimate the workforce and it would drain the economy of the communities around the ports where the dockworkers live,” says Daniel Flaming, chairman of the economic roundtable which co-coordinated -wrote the report. “I think it’s a moment of waking up and smelling the coffee.”

Shipping industry says automation has increased opportunities for unionized workers

The sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are consistently ranked among the least efficient in the world.  The shipping industry says it needs to automate more operations to stay competitive.
The sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are consistently ranked among the least efficient in the world. The shipping industry says it needs to automate more operations to stay competitive. Philip Cheung for NPR

In its own study, the shipping industry came to the opposite conclusion. He looked at the same automated terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and found that dockworkers had more work and more opportunities for training and development. (The union counters that job gains at automated terminals are the direct result of job losses at non-automated terminals.)

The shipping industry also says the machines have proven themselves at a critical time, processing containers much faster – “sometimes more than twice as fast”, according to the industry-funded study.

“We have seen from experience that automated terminals are the most effective at handling historical volumes while expanding work opportunities for ILWU members,” said Jim McKenna, CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association, calling it a win-win.

Ports in the LA area are among the least efficient in the world

The need for some kind of change is obvious. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are consistently ranked as the least efficient in the world. More modern ports in the Middle East and China, where 24/7 operations are the norm, bring ships in and out much faster.

The transition to a fully automated operation is extremely expensive. Globally, only 53 container terminals, or around 4% of container terminal capacity, are automated “to some degree”, according to the International Transport Forum. But the automation is not just there, it is expected to grow. According to one estimate, 90% of current port works could disappear by 2040.

Some union workers have taken jobs at automated terminals while others avoid it

As Automation Coordinator at the Long Beach Container Terminal, Rebecca Schlarb spends her days in front of six monitors, tracking driverless vehicles and cranes, and troubleshooting problems.

“When the system works, it’s actually a marvel to watch,” says Schlarb, a former Navy employee. But breakdowns are common – two or three times per shift, she says. Lost network connections can interrupt the whole operation.

Schlarb says many of his union brothers and sisters refused to work at automated terminals, wanting nothing to do with it.

“To me, it’s bittersweet,” she says. “I’m a bit of a geek, so I like the actual work, figuring out how it works. But the number of jobs that have been lost for clerks and stevedores has been so significant, and that’s just a very scary for all of us.”

As Automation Coordinator, Rebecca Schlarb monitors and troubleshoots automated equipment at the Long Beach Container Terminal.  She loves the job, but mourns the job loss resulting from automation.
As Automation Coordinator, Rebecca Schlarb monitors and troubleshoots automated equipment at the Long Beach Container Terminal. She loves the job, but mourns the job loss resulting from automation. Michael Podue/ILWU

Dockworkers are among the highest paid blue collar workers and they support vibrant communities around ports

ILWU dockers are among the highest paid blue collar workers in America. Full-time union members can earn over $100,000 a year. Those with years of on-the-job experience can earn double that. Health care is free and pensions are generous.

These high salaries support the vibrant communities around the ports. Monti, the crane operator, fears what could happen to these communities if jobs are lost. He points to Rust Belt towns like Flint, Detroit and Youngstown.

“You see how those economies have been completely disrupted because the main source of work that everyone has gone,” he says.

In Bjazevic’s mind, every American should have the opportunity to earn a decent living. Well-paying jobs like those on the waterfront should be the norm, not the exception.

“I’m a hard worker. I can send two kids to college without worrying about a mortgage payment. My husband is sick,” she says. “Those are the basics.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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