Automation VS Man: A Fight For The Community

Hera Serna, Staff Writer

On Thursday, March 21st, 2019, a hearing was held consisting of longshoremen, government officials, company members of Maersk, and even community members. The hearing was to request a reversal of a decision that was passed back in November. To have automation at the Port of Los Angeles, particularly at the Maersk Terminal. The argument being whether automation should be brought to the port or should longshore workers continue to work the port themselves. Longshoremen or dockworkers are waterfront manual laborers who are involved in loading and unloading cargo from or to ships, trucks, and trains.

© Fan Jun/REX
An image of the largest port, the Port of Shanghai

Ports are very large but one of the biggest port that currently exists is the Port of Shanghai. Although, Shanghai’s port is the largest in the world, the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach compares as being one of the most busiest in America. The port is the size of a small city with at least 7,000 workers who are just casuals. Casuals are dock workers who are like interns at the port, they work part time with no union benefits and the jobs they get is not up to them. Casuals work for years in order to become part of the union, to choose their own jobs and receive higher pay.

To be part of the union is tough work, especially because the work is so unpredictable, you never know what job you could because you might not even get a job.

The workers start as casuals and work hard when they’re needed until they become a Registered Member, which is also known as an ID or B-Book. When a casual becomes an ID, this means you work as an ID for approximately ten years in order to become the highest rank which is an A-Book. Once you’re an A-Book, you have reached the highest rank and you are able to be a boss or supervisor. These Bosses set their own time and can become a superior in whatever job they like.

The work is extremely tough at the port, but what happens when that job is being threatened to be removed from those hard working casuals? If a company is threatening one man’s job, that company is threatening the whole ILWU family. You may not know but this is happening right now. The danish company, Maersk, had an idea to have all ports become automated. Maersk is an “integrated” container organization company working to connect and simplify its customers’ supply chains. As the global leader in shipping services, the company operates in 130 countries and offers jobs to at least 70,000 people. If Maersk does have automation at the port, then this means many longshore men and women will lose their jobs. Could there be possible benefits for the situation?

Community members, councilmen, and students have shared how they think this will be a great impact on our community. Community Activist Shannon Ross says, “It’s going to affect our entire community because people are going to stop shopping at businesses and maybe putting out small businesses here in our community, people that work at those businesses are going to lose their jobs, the housing market is going to go down, things like that.”

Others have agreed with Ms. Ross, saying either automation would be bad idea or that automation would affect our community horrible. Seventh Grader, Savannah Johansen explains, “It’s going to affect the community very strongly and with San Pedro’s population being made up mostly of the ILWU, a lot of people are going to be losing their jobs and not having to work will cause them to not get their money.”

Automation has already taken simple jobs like those you see at the supermarkets. Instead of having a person working at the register or checkout, we now have self-checkout where we do those simple jobs ourselves. Some are concerned that if automation were to take over the port, not only will many jobs be taken, but the port will start to lose money.

Many people may not know but automation runs slower than a human being and is very expensive. Ports that have already experienced automation are Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT), as well as TraPac. Both of those companies are still in debt millions of dollars because of the expense of converting and because automated crains run very slow. Automation is expensive, slow, and it will be taking many longshore jobs, but it also offers new jobs. Automation needs to be built and managed by someone, so this opens up jobs for the people in our community. 

Councilman Joe Buscaino has added, “The longshore work forces are people of the community here in San Pedro and Wilmington, so robots and automation is definitely a concern because when you automate you lose tax space, you lose the ability to contribute to a local economy, to purchase goods at our local stores, to go to purchase homes. So, it’s definitely a concern, that’s why you see the outpour of support, of concern about the future of work at our Port complex.”

Others argue that with the automation, the port becomes a bit safer than it was before.The benefits of automation can also be turned in to detriments depending on one looks at the issue.

Vice President of the ILWU, Gary Herrera explains, “There’ve been studies right now because automations run strictly on a software that they don’t make the quick decisions that humans do when there’s movement. In the terminal where the longshoreman work, there’s many big powered machines and they’re going side by side and humans can make that last second split decision, where we just saw as of a couple days ago a computer software broke and went right into a ship. So, the problem is with that there’s nobody guiding them, there’s nobody that can make split second decisions.”

Many believe in a combined approach. Mr. Herrera explained how automation is a good idea, but when humans are able to work with automated technology as opposed to being replaced by it to cut costs. 

The percieved “threat,” the company Maersk has issued to the community has caused controversy in the town of San Pedro. Both the ILWU and Maersk decided to hold a hearing in order to show both point of views on the matter so that both sides may have a better understanding of where the other is coming from. The hearing brought together 2,000 people of the community to attend. The huge turnout demonstrated the community’s interest in the matter.

Many officials are still torn on what is better for their port, automation or the longshoremen, and the decision that may just change our community for the good or bad.