Port Report: Move to automate Los Angeles containership terminal draws union ire

APM Terminals’ Pier 400 in Los Angeles

APM’s move to add automated box handling equipment at large terminal has dock workers concerned about job security.

The growth in import volumes coming into the U.S. last year has posed a major test for APM Terminals, which operates marine terminals in the largest and third-largest gateways for imports in the country. Due to high demand from shippers, APM’s owner Maersk has deployed ever-larger ships coming into its terminals, with the 15,000-teu Eleonora Maersk serving the trade between China and the U.S. West Coast as of last December. But the overall growth of 13.5 percent in containerized imports into the U.S. last year is straining APM’s Los Angeles and New Jersey terminals. Truck drivers and shippers have complained about delays in pulling containers out of the terminals.

To ease future backlogs, APM Los Angeles is exploring the use of automated straddle carriers to lift containers onto truck chassis. In a permit filing with California regulators, APM said the all-electric straddle carriers were needed to ensure compliance with California’s increasingly strict environmental regulations. But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is protesting the move, saying it will says the move will eliminate the role of dock workers who manually operate container-lifting equipment at APM. “Automation is not good for the community, it’s not good for America,” said ILWU president Mark Mendoza at a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of jobs that are at risk here.”


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Smaller containerships facing supply crunch

The increasing economies of scale afforded to ever larger containerships present a problem for the many terminals and ship berths that cannot accept mega-container vessels. Harbors have to be dredged and maintained at depths greater than fifty feet to accommodate the big ships. With many smaller ports, particularly in Europe and Asia, not being able to reach those depths, many shippers rely on a network of smaller boxships called “feeders,” which can transship cargo between ports. These vessels, which are usually below 3,000-teu in size, are a vital, but aging, part of maritime supply chains, writes FreightWaves Nick Savvides. About one-quarter of the world’s feeder ship fleet is over 20 years old, which is generally age at which ships are retired. But new environmental rules facing the construction of containerships means that it will be more difficult for owners to decide whether to scrap older ships. The upshot is that a large network of less efficient feeder containerships could still be used well into the future.

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Michael Angell, Bulk and Intermodal Editor

Michael Angell covers maritime, intermodal and related topics for FreightWaves. His interest in transportation stretches back several generations. One great-grandfather was a dray horseman along the New York waterfront and another was a railway engineer in Texas. More recently, Michael has written about the shipping industry for TradeWinds, energy markets for Oil Price Information Service, and general business topics for FactSet Mergerstat and Investor's Business Daily. When he is not stuck in the office, he enjoys tours of ports, terminals, and railyards.