A battle brewing between two waterfront powerhouses — terminal operators and the union workers they pay and employ — quickly gained more steam Tuesday, April 16, when a vote on port automation was delayed for a second time at the request of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Garcetti sent a letter to the Los Angeles Harbor Commissioners ahead of the Tuesday morning meeting requesting a 30-day postponement while he continues brokering talks between the two parties, which are at loggerheads over a permit application — with jobs and possibly the Port of L.A.’s future at stake.
After years of relative peace in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — contract talks don’t come around again until 2021 — the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has mobilized to fight what it sees as a direct threat to jobs.
Commissioners had been set to decide at its meeting whether to approve a permit that would allow APM Terminals, the largest cargo terminal in the Western Hemisphere, to begin automating some aspects of Pier 400, where Maersk operates at the Port of Los Angeles. The equipment would include unmanned cargo straddlers.
The union has said the move would cost hundreds and maybe thousands of jobs in the long run; terminal operators, meanwhile, have countered that automation is safer and more efficient than using workers alone, and helps the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach meet environmental goals.
But following Tuesday’s meeting, few would say anything about the ongoing talks Garcetti has facilitated.
His office said the letter — dated April 16 and read aloud during the commission meeting — was the only statement Garcetti would make. Union officials and Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino did not return phone calls seeking comment. Tom Boyd of APM Terminals issued a written statement but declined any comment on the talks themselves, which he said remain “private.”
Maersk welcomed Garcetti’s leadership, Boyd said, “to pursue a swift solution to the permitting delays at APM Terminals Pier 400 Los Angeles.”
The groundwork for this battle, in some ways, was laid years ago, in the 2002 and 2008 labor contracts signed by the two parties.
The 2002 contract provided for a “widespread introduction of technology into terminals,” stated a new economic analysis issued by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers. In exchange, longshore workers received increased pension benefits and other perks. A 40-hour weekly pay guarantee until retirement was included to protect workers displaced by automation.
But after the APM Terminal permit received routine administrative approval earlier this year, the longshormen’s union cried foul, organizing a strong showing at harbor commission meetings to appeal the permit.
The battle has been raging ever since, spilling over into the surrounding communities, where shop owners have posted fliers supporting the union.
The commission had been set to weigh in on the appeal on March 21, but the panel delayed the vote to Tuesday after Garcetti announced his intent to meet with both sides. It is not known how many meetings have taken place since.
As Tuesday’s meeting approached, many expected a fight between the terminal operators and the union.
For union members, the big-picture argument comes down to robots vs. people. And that hits very close to home in an age where technology has already affected many job sectors.
The union staged a march from the Port of Los Angeles headquarters to a larger San Pedro waterfront meeting hall Tuesday morning, April 16, ready to witness the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners’ decision to reject or stand behind the permit.
As the protesters headed to the meeting, they chanted: “American jobs! Robots no! Automation’s got to go!”
About 1,500 to 2,000 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, according to Port of Los Angeles estimates. Making it inside required them to trudge their way through metal detectors.
Then, after they barely sat down, the audience heard Garcetti’s letter.
“At my invitation, the ILWU and APM Terminals have met and are in talks regarding the proposed project at Pier 400,” Garcetti’s letter said. “Throughout the discussions I led at City Hall, I was encouraged by the leadership shown by both parties.”
The commission then delayed the vote again. It took about five minutes — which appeared to disappoint many in the audience after all the build-up for what was supposed to be a vote on the permit.
in his letter, Garcetti, who also conducted talks during the recent LAUSD teachers strike, called the confidential negotiations “complex.”
And so, in many ways, is the history of modernization at the ports.
Ever since containerization modernized ports in 1960, according to PMA’s report, longshore jobs have increased and are now at their highest numbers. At the end of 2018, , there were 7,829 registered longshore workers, according to the report, called “Sustaining the San Pedro Bay Community Ports of Los Angeles & Long Beach.” That was up from 5,219 in 2003.
Wages also have increased significantly in that time, according to the report, with “the average full-time registered worker earning more than $183,000 per year.”
Healthcare is fully paid, the report added, and costs employers about $53,000 annually for each registered worker.
While records for container volumes at the ports continue to be broken, the two ports are actually losing “market share” as Gulf Coast and East Coast ports step up their operations to be more competitive, according to both port officials and the report.
Global shipping patterns, the report stated, along with customer demand for increasing flexibility and the widening of the Panama Canal, have “eroded” the L.A.-L.B port advantage, said the report, written by several economic and trade experts.
“Terminal automation is an essential tool to ensure that the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports continue to be engines of prosperity for the state, region and local communities,” the report said, “including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers and other workers, while enabling the maritime industry to reduce its environmental footprint for the benefit of all.”
Still, there’s a long way to go before full automation takes over: Only two out of the 12 terminals in the twin ports are now automated, TraPac in the Port of Los Angeles and the Long Bach Container Terminal.
And even the APM Terminal permit controversy seems far from settled
Based on comments from some of the commissioners following the March 21 public hearing, the board appeared divided at that time.
Buscaino, meanwhile, suggested he’d take the matter to the full City Council for an override should the commission side with the terminal.
But either way, most observers expect the issue to ultimately be decided in the courts.