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Maritime regulators to weigh opposing views on port automation

APM Terminals' Pier 400, Port of Los Angeles. (Photo credit: APM Terminals)

The agency responsible for the health of the U.S. maritime sector will be considering the role that labor and politics play in automating port operations.

In comments submitted to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd), Daniel Reiss, president of Automated Terminal Systems (ATS), said that it’s a mistake for terminal operators and port authorities to appease labor by introducing automation gradually.

“Experience in the automotive and steel industry has demonstrated that such an approach is not only inefficient it is counterproductive,” Reiss said. “In both industries, management concluded that the effort was ‘just not worth it’ and shut down facilities rather than fight the increasingly strident demands of the unions. Those industries virtually died in the U.S. It was not until management ‘bit the bullet’ and implemented full automation systems that those sectors revived.”

Reiss’ comments were in response to a request by MarAd for advice on how the agency should go about supporting automation at U.S. ports. Ashburn, VA-based ATS is a designer of automated and semi-automated cargo-handling systems.

Reiss also noted a “lack of understanding” among politicians on the effects of automating ports. He cited recent comments made by Rex Richardson, a councilman for the city of Long Beach, CA, and Los Angeles Mayor Robert Garcia regarding the potential fallout from terminal automation at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the largest in the country.

“Comments such as these exhibit a profound misunderstanding of automation and the damage the maritime unions have already done to America’s technological advances,” Reiss argued. “We are not in danger of getting ahead to the technology, we have fallen behind. It is also apparent that these politicians believe that the West Coast ports are protected from a loss of cargo because of the inherent situational advantage of the California ports in particular. 

“But already competing ports in Canada and Mexico are siphoning off cargo as they expand, adopt advanced automation and integrate intermodal rail. The Rex Richardsons and Robert Garcias of the world will find that they have large underutilized port facilities in their backyards without work,” he said.

Reiss called coastal agreements between terminal operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dockworkers on the U.S. West Coast, and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which represents workers on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, as obstacles to automation technology because the agreements allow the unions to strike ocean carriers in multiple ports.

“This is a secondary boycott prohibited by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Ocean carriers and port authorities should sue the unions when this occurs and pursue the case to the Supreme Court for a clarifying ruling,” Reiss said.

But the main concern of ILWU and ILA was that the maritime agency was too focused on automation technology as it applies within the port and not enough on its potential for reducing employment. “What is at stake is the future nature of work and how the benefits of the enormous productivity produced by automation is distributed between capital and labor,” the unions asserted in a joint submission with eight other labor organizations.

“The automated technology industry and its proponents have a view of the future with robots manufacturing products, driverless trucks and unmanned ships transporting the products to Amazon-type warehouses managed by robots and the last-mile distribution of the product by drones. The entire supply chain from production to intermodal transport to final distribution is the target of the automated technology industry.”

Unlike ATS, the unions consider political oversight critical for port automation to gain significant traction in the U.S.

“Matters of a common economic interest to the welfare of society as a whole need to be determined on a political level through good governance. We seriously question whether MarAd’s promotion of port automation before the government addresses the social issues created by automation is good governance.”

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.