LA automation vote delay opens door for compromise

LA automation vote delay opens door for compromise

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) argues a plan by APM Terminals to introduce driverless straddle carriers on a 100-acre portion of its 440-acre Pier 400 terminal in Los Angeles will result in job and productivity losses. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

The Los Angeles harbor commission’s Tuesday decision to give APM Terminals and longshore locals 30 days to come to an agreement on automating the facility opens the door for the two sides to work the issue out on their own.

Previous West Coast compromises involving hours of work and manning at individual terminals reflected the unique operating circumstances at different ports and even different terminals in the same port.

The commission Tuesday postponed a decision on a construction permit needed to automate a portion of the APM terminal, giving the employer and longshore locals more time to reach an understanding on how the project might proceed.

Citing potential job losses, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has opposed a plan by APM Terminals to introduce autonomous (driverless) straddle carriers on a 100-acre portion of its 440-acre Pier 400 terminal in Los Angeles. The commission has postponed a decision several times since APM submitted its proposal on Nov. 1, 2018. The ILWU Tuesday led hundreds of dockworkers, political supporters, and other labor interests on a march to the commission meeting to reinforce its opposition to automation.

In a letter to the Board of Harbor Commissioners Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti asked for a 30-day delay on APM’s request for a coastal development permit so the employer and ILWU local leaders could work something out. “At my invitation, the ILWU and APM Terminals have met and are in talks regarding the proposed project at Pier 400. Throughout the discussions I led at City Hall, I was encouraged by the leadership shown by both parties,” Garcetti said in the letter.

APM Terminals responded through a spokesperson, “We appreciate Mayor Garcetti’s leadership on this important matter. After months of delay, we look forward to working expeditiously through the process he’s outlined to make the port competitive.” Since the ILWU can not block any terminal automation project through the coastwide contract, the union in this case is attempting to do so by asking the harbor commission to deny a low-level construction permit to APM.

Although the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) negotiate coastwide contracts covering all West Coast ports, each individual employer is free to discuss with the leadership of the ILWU locals matters specific to a particular terminal. Any local agreements that are reached do not set a precedent for other terminals in the port complex or for other ports on the coast.

These agreements usually derive from the operational conditions at a particular terminal. They could involve a specific job description, such as crane operators or yard tractor drivers, or the unique working environment at a facility. For example, there are two fully automated terminals in Southern California, the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles and Long Beach Container Terminal’s Middle Harbor facility. Under the coastwide contract, each terminal presented its plans to the ILWU locals, and they worked out various operating and manning issues.

On the other hand, in the 2008 coastwide contract, the ILWU agreed that individual employers could, at will, deploy unmanned cargo-handling machines. In return, the union secured retirement benefits of $95,460 for full-time longshoremen.

Also, the coastwide contract has for many years contained a pay guarantee plan in which full-time longshoremen are assured full-time pay even if there is not enough work to go around. That provision is normally implemented only at smaller breakbulk ports where daily work opportunities fluctuate. Los Angeles-Long Beach, which last year handled 17.5 million TEU, almost always has so much work available that hundreds of part-time workers, known as casuals, take the overflow jobs each day, especially on the second shift.

ILWU leaders have told previous harbor commission meetings that automated terminals can result in a 40-70 percent reduction in labor needs. The PMA in February released statistics showing that despite the TraPac and Middle Harbor automation projects, which began in 2015, the total number of registered general longshoremen at the 12 container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach increased from 6,765 to 7,826. Registered ILWU marine clerks increased from 1,054 in 2015 to 1,151 as container volumes continued to increase. Employers have also noted that automation creates new jobs that require new skill sets, and the ILWU continues to push the PMA to promote job training for the skills that are required.

The PMA also cites automation as a potential source of increased productivity that terminals could deploy to lower operating costs so West Coast ports will be more competitive with US East and Gulf coast ports, and Canadian ports, in attracting and keeping discretionary cargo. The PMA Monday released a consultants’ study performed on its behalf citing cost differentials of 90-165 percent at other ports. The report stated that the West Coast share of discretionary Asian imports dropped from 56 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2008 due to higher operating costs, and, in competition with Vancouver and Prince Rupert, Canada, higher intermodal rail costs to Chicago compared with the intermodal rail pricing by US railroads.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo. 

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