A labor union is clashing with a Port of Long Beach terminal operator after plans to automate operations were announced last month.
Total Terminals International, operator of the 385-acre Pier T, met with leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on May 17 to announce its intentions to automate the Long Beach operation. Represented were ILWU Local 13, 63 and 94.
In a joint statement following the meeting, the union lambasted the plan, namely for the loss of union jobs.
“While foreign-owned corporations like TTI continue to push to fully automate their terminal operations at our publicly owned U.S. ports, they need to remember that the ports exist for the benefit of the U.S. and local economies, not the destruction of jobs and maximum extraction of foreign profit,” Local 13 President Ramon Ponce de Leon said in the statement.
TTI did not respond to requests for comment.
The Port of Long Beach, like most U.S. ports, is publicly owned. Terminals at the port, meanwhile, are leased—often for upward of 60 years at a time—to terminal operators from around the world.
Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Company owns 80% of TTI through its subsidiary Terminal Investment Limited. South Korea-based Hyundai Merchant Marine owns the remaining 20%.
“The ILWU stands for America’s workers, businesses, farmers, communities and schools that rely on the ports not only for the movement of cargo but also for the tax revenue that’s generated by the men and women who work on the docks,” Local 63 President Mike Podue said in the statement. “Robots don’t pay taxes, people do.”
Marine terminal operation involves replacing manually operated stacking cranes, yard tractors and other cargo-handling equipment with driverless machines. Pier T would become the fourth automated terminal at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, including the Long Beach Container Terminal, one of the most advanced facilities in the world.
Defenders of terminal automation, including the Pacific Maritime Association, claim the upgrades are necessary for ports to remain efficient and competitive. Combined, the San Pedro Bay ports are the busiest complex in the U.S., with no other trade gateway moving even half the total volume, according to global trade data company Panjiva.
Last year, the Southern California ports moved a combined 17.4 million 20-foot equivalent units, the standard unit of measure for shipping containers. The Port of New York and New Jersey, meanwhile, handled less than 7.6 million TEUs.
Cargo volumes through LA and Long Beach have been setting record numbers for 10 consecutive months. According to Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero, cargo volumes through the San Pedro Bay ports are expected to increase to more than 40 million TEUs over the next decade.
“For some terminal operators automation is seen as vital to remaining competitive and meeting extremely stringent environmental regulations, especially at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” PMA said in a statement, adding that operators have the right to automate terminals per its current contract with the union.
A 2019 study commissioned by ILWU Canada claimed automation of the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles resulted in a labor reduction of 40-50%, while the automation of the Long Beach Container Terminal resulted in a reduction of 70-75%.
In its May statement, the union also claims fully automated terminals leave the economy, of which ports are a major driver, vulnerable to cyber terrorism, citing recent attacks by hackers on the Colonial Pipeline, the largest pipeline system in the U.S., and Ireland’s health system.
Terminal operators often use automation upgrades to invest in zero-emissions equipment, which is critical for the San Pedro Bay ports to meet their ambitious environmental goals. Such equipment is already featured in LA and Long Beach.
Local 94 President Danny Miranda said the union recognizes the need for reduced emissions and improved efficiency but not for “offshore corporate profit or at the expense of American workers.
“As the Long Beach Harbor Commission, the mayor of Long Beach, and the executive director of the Port of Long Beach consider TTI’s request,” Miranda said, “we ask that [they] carefully weigh the impacts that continued automation would have on American jobs and our local communities.”