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Auto suppliers red-flag port automation on FMC agenda

Shipper adviser contends upcoming labor talks, Biden legislation warrant highlighting issue on regulator’s priority list

Port labor has downplayed benefits of terminal automation ahead negotiations. (Photo: Long Beach Container Terminal)

Anti-automation sentiment from dockworkers and pending legislation discouraging the practice at container terminals should be enough to prioritize the issue on the Federal Maritime Commission’s agenda, a shipper adviser told agency officials Wednesday.

Speaking at the December meeting of the FMC’s National Shipper Advisory Committee (NSAC), Steven Hughes, who represents the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association on the panel, said the recent developments on automation could hamper progress on improving supply chain resiliency and eliminating bottlenecks.

“This will extend the crisis we already have,” Hughes said. “What I’m trying to do is make sure that the commission and everyone paying attention to our committee is aware that this is a concern, that there is an active movement to try and stop automation.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) recently rejected an offer by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast container terminal operators, to a one-year extension of its labor contract, according to reports. The current agreement expires on July 1, 2022. Terminal automation is expected to be a hot-button issue in the next round of negotiations.

The ILWU was not immediately available to comment. However, Frank Ponce De Leon, the committeeman for the union’s Coast Longshore Division, recently downplayed claims by dockworker employers on some of the benefits of terminal automation.

“The current record-setting container moves are being done at our manned terminals, by American workers,” Ponce De Leon stated at an agriculture shippers meeting in October. “Manned terminals not only consistently outperform automation, but during surges, manned terminals have far greater flexibility to expand and adjust our operations.

“And in a world dealing more and more with cyberterrorism, you can’t hack the longshore worker like you can hack automation. The only thing automated terminals reliably do is cut labor costs. And that’s money spent in our port community, which is instead optimized for [employers’] billion-dollar profits.”

Hughes also cited legislation in the President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which is currently being considered in the Senate, that specifically blocks automated cargo-handling equipment from taking advantage of $3.5 billion in competitive grant funds aimed at cutting pollution at seaports.

Similarly, the $750 million Port and Intermodal Improvement Program, part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s reauthorization that Congress passed on Tuesday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, includes a requirement that the funds cannot be used to purchase fully automated cargo handling equipment “if the [Transportation] secretary determines such equipment would result in a net loss of jobs within a port or port terminal.”

Hughes, who is also president and CEO of HCS International, an automotive aftermarket parts consultancy, “was instrumental in assisting the automotive industry with closely monitoring labor negotiations and the port disruptions at West Coast ports” in 2014 and 2015, according to HCS. He also collected data on the negative effect those disruptions had on the industry.

NSAC Chairman Brian Bumpass agreed that it is “a little bit concerning that [legislation] tagged with improving infrastructure that automation is consciously excluded.”

Wednesday’s meeting was the second of the newly formed committee, set up to advise the FMC on policies related to reliability and competition in the ocean freight supply chain.

While preliminary work on data transparency and demurrage and detention issues was the focus of the meeting, Dylan Richmond, the designated federal officer tasked with providing support to the committee on behalf of the FMC, told the committee that port automation will be considered as a topic once subcommittees are established.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.