ILWU’s goal for terminal automation: worker training

ILWU’s goal for terminal automation: worker training

Even if the Los Angeles City Council vetoes the harbor commission’s approval of a key construction permit for APM Terminals, the most it can do is return the matter to the commission to reconsider its vote. Photo credit:

The latest attempt by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to stall an automation project at APM Terminals in Los Angeles is turning into an all-out effort by the union to assure its workers are properly trained for the computerization and mechanization of waterfront jobs that is likely to occur in the years ahead.

The Los Angeles City Council on Friday will meet to consider a request by the union to veto last week’s approval by the harbor commission of the construction permit needed to prepare a 100-acre portion of the 440-acre APM terminal for automation. 

Ray Familathe, president of ILWU Local 13, said that whatever course the city council takes, he will continue his efforts to push employers to work with the union to upgrade dockworkers’ skills.

“We are focusing on our negotiations with APM. My focus is on workforce training,” Familathe told Tuesday. 

The Los Angeles project is of keen interest to terminal operators and longshore unions in the US and Western Canada because the automated straddle carriers will eliminate dozens of dockworker jobs shuttling containers within the terminal.

Automation ends some jobs, creates new ones

Even though the auto-strads will be unmanned, they will create new jobs in maintaining and repairing the equipment. There is no auto-strad operation in the US, so generic training programs that exist will not prepare workers to handle the new, possibly higher-paying jobs that will be created for maintaining auto-strads. Familathe said he wants assurances his members will have jurisdiction over that work and be trained for those jobs.

After five months of contentious negotiations between the ILWU and APM, which included continuous oversight from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the harbor commission last Thursday approved a construction permit at Pier 400, in effect giving APM the green light to proceed with the automation project. However, Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino at the weekend introduced a motion asking the council to exercise jurisdiction over the matter and to veto the permit. The Port of Los Angeles is an agency of the city.

A spokesperson for Buscaino said the city council is expected to take expedited action on Friday. The venue will be prepared for an overflow crowd of longshore workers for the public comment period, which will be followed immediately by a council vote. However, the city council’s powers are limited. Even if the council vetoes last week’s harbor commission’s approval of the construction permit, the most it can do is return the matter to the harbor commission to reconsider its vote.

Worker training is a long-term issue

Familathe said whatever the city council decides to do Friday is out of his hands. The longer-term issue is to maintain ongoing negotiations with APM about worker training. He also wants to work with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the employer organization that negotiates and administers the West Coast ILWU contract, to expand worker training programs to include not just registered longshore workers, but also the part-time longshore workers, known as casuals, who work out of the hiring hall. Eventually, all present and newly hired longshore workers must be trained for the skills they will need so they can step in and handle work involving modern equipment and computerized operating systems, Familathe said.

Unlike the East and Gulf coasts, where the International Longshoremen’s Association works with the United States Maritime Alliance on coastwide training programs, training on the West Coast is mostly employer-specific.

ILWU Local 13 has been meeting with APM managers for weeks to work out a plan for upskilling longshore mechanics’ skills so they can maintain and repair the dozens of auto-strads APM has ordered for the terminal, Familathe said. Wim Lagaay, president and CEO of APM Terminals North America, told last week APM supports the union’s demand for upskilling existing workers to maintain and repair the new equipment.

The ILWU cannot block automation at any terminal through its coastwide contract with the PMA; it gave away that right in the 2008 contract in return for increased pension benefits. Full-time longshore workers now earn more than $95,000 a year in pension benefits when they retire.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo