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West Coast ports and unions clash on automation ahead of talks

Aerial view of cargo containers in Long Beach port California USA
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The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) has released a study extolling the benefits of port automation ahead of labour talks – but unions have argued that resulting increased productivity has enhanced employment disparities.

Paid hours at the automated terminals of Los Angeles and Long Beach have increased 31.5 per cent since 2015, more than twice the rate at non-automated terminals.

Since 2019, automation introduced at terminals has reduced container processing times by half.

The data was published on 2 May in a study led by University of California at Berkeley professor Michael Nacht and commissioned by PMA.

© ILWU via Twitter

“Higher cargo throughput will create port-related jobs and add employment throughout the supply chain. Conversely, failing to adapt threatens to drive cargo to other ports, with a cascading loss of jobs on the docks and throughout the regional economy,” Nacht and co-author Larry Henry wrote on the benefits of automation.

“What’s been proven from the pandemic, or the surge in cargo, is the fact that the facilities that are automated have been much more efficient than conventional terminals,” added Jim McKenna, CEO of PMA, in an interview last month commenting on the ongoing supply-chain crisis in the US.

“What we have really seen is that as these terminals take on significantly more cargo, they are actually taking on more man-hours for longshoremen. It is not an either-or type of situation. Automation is the future.”

The PMA has long fought to introduce automation at its terminals, but has met with criticism from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Despite accepting the terminals’ drive towards to automation, the ILWU has argued that the move would destroy human jobs as increased container volume at automated terminals has been achieved at the expense of other terminals and resulted in loss of employment.

Talks between the PMA and the ILWU are now due to take place on 10 May to produce new labour contracts for 22,000 West Coast dockworkers expiring 1 July.

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