Automated Cargo Handlers Approved for the Port of LA Despite Union Backlash

July 11, 2019 - 3:22 pm
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Despite vocal objections from unionized dockworkers and a recent City Council veto, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission today again approved a permit allowing electric-powered automated cargo handlers to be installed by the port's largest operator.

The automated handlers will be operated at the Port of Los Angeles by the Danish firm Maersk, the world's biggest container shipping company, through its subsidiary APM Terminals. Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13 have argued the automation will cost them work opportunities each day.

"APM has proven that they're going to benefit their pockets," said Ray Familathe, president of the ILWU Local 13. "Please include us into this automation project. I think the commission is making a poor decision. These are hard workers. If we can't be included in technology going forward, then what can we be included in?"

The board's vote was 3-2, with commissioners Anthony Pirozzi and Diane Middleton opposing. The board's vote was technically a rejection of an ILWU appeal of the port's original approval of the permit.

The commission had already rejected the appeal once, but that action was vetoed two weeks ago by the City Council. Council members said they supported the unionized workers and did not want to see them lose work to automation. The council's veto sent the matter back to the commission for another hearing, resulting in Thursday's commission meeting.

It was not immediately clear if the council would again attempt a veto, leaving the permit in bureaucratic limbo. Port officials told City News Service the council can continue vetoing the board's action, but it cannot alter decisions made by the commission.

During an emotional commission hearing that was repeatedly disrupted by audience outbursts, Gary Herrera, vice president of the ILWU Local 13, said the permit should be subjected to a full environmental impact report.

"You say that it's a small (environmental) impact, it's not. This has greater consequences than just putting a fence up," Herrera said.

Port officials, however, said the permit does not allow for operations that merit a stronger environmental review.

Eugene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said the automated cargo handlers will bring the port into the next era of operations, helping it remain competitive with other U.S. ports.

"This project will not remove capacity and it will not push harbor revenues down," Seroka said. "Over the next 15 years, our cargo growth will double ... and we need to make sure we have the best and brightest in the field, and I continue to work with (employees and unions) on that subject."

Commissioner Lucia Moreno-Linares said she wanted more input from ILWU and how it will address automation issues in the future, but she voted to deny the appeal.

"You did not once address how you and prior leadership negotiated automation," Moreno-Linares told ILWU officials in the audience.

The audience erupted following her comments, delaying the meeting for several minutes.

Dozens of public speakers pleaded with the commission during the hearing not to allow the automated equipment.

APM officials have repeatedly insisted, however, that the automated equipment does not actually require a permit, and the company plans to install the equipment regardless of the commission's action.

Wim Lagaay, chairman of APM Terminals Pacific, sent a letter to the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti in June stating that the company has the contractual authority to install the automated equipment.

"APMT has the undisputed right under its lease and its collective bargaining agreement to introduce automated technology of this sort and does not require a permit or any other port, city or state approval to operate automated, driverless trucks," Lagaay wrote.

He said the rejection of the permit would only require the equipment to be powered by diesel motors, instead of cleaner electric motors.

About 12,000 dockworkers are employed at the Port of Los Angeles, and each day there are a number of work opportunities doled out among them. An estimated 500 work opportunities per day could be lost if the automated vehicles are brought in, according to the ILWU.

Middleton, the Harbor Commission member who opposes the permit, said during the City Council's June 28 meeting that the automation project will "lead to a tremendous loss of business." She said if 500 work opportunities are lost per day, that could translate into $200,000 lost per day to the local economy, or $52 million a year.

Harbor Commission members suggested Thursday creating a committee to look at automation as a whole.

"But that's not part of today," Harbor Commission President Jaime Lee said. "We have found from the evidence submitted that the facts have not changed."

Peter Jabbour, the North America vice president and general counsel of APM Terminals, said arguments made by opponents during the meeting did not apply to the company's environmental obligations.

"We continue to believe the objections are outside the environmental process, and although we have the right and technology with diesel power, it has never been our intent (to just use diesel)," Jabbour said during the hearing.

James McKenna, president and CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates labor agreements with the ILWU, said a training program will be established for workers to repair and utilize the automated cargo handlers.