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LA/LB ports automation will lead to more work, hours, new study says

Purpose of automation is to replace human workers with machines, and in this case to harm U.S.-based workforce: ILWU

LA/LB ports automation will lead to more work, hours, new study says
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Paid union hours i.e International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) hours at the two automated terminals across the key U.S. West Coast ports (Los Angeles and Long Beach) rose over 31 percent due to automation, more than twice the 14 percent growth in paid hours at the non-automated terminals.

"The registered ILWU workforce in Los Angeles and Long Beach increased over 11 percent compared to 8 percent for the other 27 West Coast ports," according to a a new study by Michael Nacht, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Larry Henry, Founder of ContainerTrac, Inc.

The claim, however, has been disputed by ILWU. "It's been brought to our attention that the PMA has released a report that the union has not yet had an opportunity to review," says Frank Ponce De Leon, ILWU Coast Committeeman in a series of tweets. "However, based on the press release issued, it's apparent that the report is a self-serving document by one party to a labour contract, and even worse is an insult to all workers who have seen their jobs outsourced to machines. The very purpose of automation is to replace human workers with machines, and in this case to harm a U.S.-based workforce and local communities only to increase the profits of the largely foreign-owned terminal operators."

The report and the ILWU view gains significance as parties get into negotiations mode towards the middle of the month.

The Port of Los Angeles handled 10.7 million containers in 2021 compared to 9.2 million in 2020, an increase of 16 percent. The port handled 958,674 containers in March, and has handled 2.7 million containers till the end of March in 2022.

The Port of Long Beach handled 863,156 containers in March 2022, an increase of nearly 3 percent, and handled 2.5 million containers till the end of March in 2022.

Automation will enable West Coast ports to remain competitive, facilitate growth in both cargo and jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas-emissions, the study said.

The study, commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), analysed public and previously unpublished data when a surge of Asian imports exposed severe shortcomings in the U.S. supply chain. "The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which process 40 percent of containerised imports from Asia, bore the brunt of this influx. They handled record levels of cargo but backlogs – at times more than 100 ships anchored offshore awaiting berths – underscored the need for the country's largest port complex to enhance terminal efficiency and productivity to accommodate growing container volumes and stanch the diversion of cargo to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports."

Automation at two of the 13 container terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach is delivering gains in a win-win-win for commerce, ILWU workers, and the environment, says the study.

Throughput of Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) per acre is 44 percent higher than in non-automated terminals, "thanks to autonomous vehicles and cranes that stack containers higher, closer together, and more efficiently for transferring to trains and trucks."


Around 40 ports globally operate or plan to open automated terminals. "Leading ports in Rotterdam, Singapore, and along China's coast are technological marvels that fuel world trade. For its size, the United States lags behind in the number of automated terminals and cargo volume handled by them."

Without greater automation, it is difficult to see how West Coast ports can reduce cargo-handling time and cost differentials to win back market share of discretionary cargo.

Jyothi Shankaran

Jyothi Shankaran

Associate Editor, STAT Media Group. He has worked with IndiaSpend, Bloomberg TV, Business Standard and Indian Express Group. Jyothi can be reached at jyothi@statmediagroup.com


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