California dockworkers are worried about losing their good-paying jobs to robots – KDLG
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Up and down the West Coast, there’s a fight to keep high-paying union jobs from going to robots. On one side, 22,000 dockworkers who play a critical role in the global supply chain, moving cargo off of ships onto trucks and trains – on the other, the shipping companies that say they need to automate more of that work in order to stay competitive. The two sides have been in contract negotiations since May, but the struggle dates back decades. Here’s NPR’s Andrea Hsu.
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ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I’ve come to Southern California, to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where 40% of imports in containers enters the U.S. Think clothes, computers, car parts. It’s a vast landscape of ships, cranes and those colorful steel containers stacked high and wide for miles. And everywhere, trucks hauling those containers out to warehouses and beyond. A year ago, this was the site of a massive logjam. The country had gone on a pandemic buying spree that led to too many ships, too many containers, nowhere to move anything.
The shipping industry, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, says more automation is key to avoiding a repeat. The dockworkers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, say robots aren’t the answer. They’ll only kill American jobs. It’s a major sticking point. With contract negotiations ongoing, the two sides have agreed to no disruptions to the work. Also, no commenting on the talks. But dockworkers will tell you they’re worried about the future.
JIMMY MONTI: People are absolutely afraid.
HSU: Jimmy Monti, a crane operator, has never worked at an automated terminal. But he’s seen the changes that automation has brought to other parts of this port complex. He points to a ship waiting to be unloaded. In a traditional operation, he says you’d have a minimum of 16 truck drivers waiting to receive containers off the ship, and four top handlers – or forklift operators – stacking the containers on the dock.
MONTI: Those jobs would all be gone. They’re all gone on automated terminals.
HSU: Replaced by driverless vehicles and automated stacking cranes. So far, only a few terminals at LA and Long Beach have automated. It’s an extremely costly move. Still, increasingly, the question appears to be not if more terminals will bring in new technology, but when and how union workers will fare in the end. It’s a dynamic that’s existed in some form since the 1960s, when shipping containers revolutionized the industry. Until then, cargo crossed the ocean in sacks and crates and barrels. Longshoremen worked in the holds of ships, using hooks to move goods to shore.
JAMES SPINOSA: Long hours. Hard work. Everything done by hand.
HSU: James Spinosa arrived at the tail end of that era. He watched as gangs of longshoremen were replaced by cranes that could lift whole containers of goods at once. The union had foreseen the threat to jobs and negotiated a controversial agreement allowing for some mechanization of the work. At the heart of it was this philosophy.
SPINOSA: We would go along with mechanization, providing that mechanization took us along.
HSU: Meaning, there was something in it for the workers – above all, job protection. In 1989 came another turning point. Spinoza, then a rising union leader, traveled to Rotterdam to see a new type of crane that operated without a driver.
SPINOSA: And would pick up the …….
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