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Automation - the gloves come off in Los Angeles

After learning of APM Terminalss plans to introduce automated straddle carriers at Pier 400 the ILWU has come out fighting against another automated terminal in San Pedro harbour.

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After months of talks behind the scenes the difficult process of introducing automated equipment to APM Terminals Pier 400 facility in Los Angeles is now out in the open. Last week it became known that APM Terminals is planning to convert Pier 400 in Los Angeles to an automated straddle carrier operation, using fully electric straddle carriers to comply with targets in the Clean Air Action Plan.


APM Terminals had applied for, and the Los Angeles Harbour Commission was due to consider, a permit for the landside electrical infrastructure for battery-electric straddle carriers. Separately APM Terminals had written to customers advising of its goal to implement automated straddle carriers at Pier 400.


As far as can be ascertained APM Terminals plan is to conduct a pilot test of fully electric automated machines on the area of Pier 400 that was previously occupied by CUT. It has not been announced, but ILWU members have said the plan is to have 130 automated Kalmar machines.


Though the agenda item for the electrical permit was pulled from the commission meeting, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union staged a protest outside the port building, and packed the meeting room for the Commission’s regular meeting. The Commission did not consider the permit, but allowed speakers to comment.


ILWU members delivered several impassioned pleas against automation, noting its impact on longshore and other waterfront labour, and the families and communities that depend on those incomes. Speakers made it clear the ILWU will fight automation at Pier 400.


John Ochs Senior Director, West Coast Labor and Regulatory Affairs for APM Terminals North America did not try to sugar coat the impact of automation. Respoinding to ILWU speaker Mark Mendoza, President of ILWU Local 13, who spoke on how automation would devastate the longshore workforce, Ochs said: “Mark I respect everything you have said. I realise that from where you are and the esteemed role that you have as the President of the largest longshore local in North America, the news that we are telling you is horrible. And I respect the situation that we’ve stuck you in and I respect what you are doing here this morning. If I were in your shoes I would probably do the same thing”.


APM Terminals, however, has a different agenda. The goal to under the port’s Clean Air Action Plan to have all cargo handling equipment zero emissions by 2030 is one factor driving it to consider a new equipment system. Ochs was clear, however, that APM T “is not hiding at the back of the clean air action plan, with the labour savings that we are seeking to get.”


Ochs stated that from a contractual and legal perspective APM Terminals does not need a new agreement with labour, or approval of the Harbour Commission to introduce automation at Pier 400. Master contract agreements going back to 2002 give APM Terminals, and other terminal operators represented by the PMA, the right to introduce technology to replace clerk and longshore tasks with technology, just as was done at LBCT and Trapac, and Ochs read the relevant section of the master contract to the commission and the ILWU members in attendance.


However, the Master Contract says nothing specific about how exactly automation will be implemented, and this has proved to be a minefield previously. LBCT and Trapac have had long and protracted battles with the ILWU over issues like the remote operator ratios for ASC cranes, and the extent to which sensors and other technology can be used to verify there is no person in an interchange zone before a crane enters. There was a protracted battle at TraPac in particular over whether the system for preventing an ASC crane entering the road truck interchange zone needed to be supervised by a person or not.


Compromises were made in some instances, including creating some new roles at the terminals, and developing a new “Crane Training Program” where crane drivers in certain lower seniority categories are required to complete a new course to maintain eligibility for these roles. The new position of Head Crane Simulator Instructor was created for a Local 13 member, and four steady crane operators per terminal were designated to assist with STS crane training. There was also an expectation that automation would create new ILWU jobs maintaining equipment, with some committment to retraining.


Terminal specific agreements and deals were reached for LBCT and TraPac, but ILWU members speaking to the Los Angeles Harbour Commission made it clear, however, that labour did not get a good deal out of this process. The AGVs and ASCs at LBCT in particular have drastically reduced the labour requirement, by 70% to 75% compared to LBCT’s previous operation, it was claimed.


The ILWU membership does not want to see this repeated, and the ILWU leadership will be under pressure to prevent as many job losses as possible at Pier 400. It is likely that the debate over if and how automation will implemented will be a lot tougher than the same process was for TraPac and LBCT. These terminals are up and running now, the ILWU membership knows what is coming and is much better informed about the technical aspects of terminal automation. As a consequence there is far greater chance of labour disruptions at Los Angeles as APM Terminals moves its plans forward.

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