Will Robots Replace People at the Port of LA?

ILWU No Robots

I have to admit I was initially ticked off that I couldn’t get into the LA City Council meeting on Friday. I’d taken the subway to Downtown that morning because I wanted to speak about an item on the Council agenda. But when I got to City Hall, I found a huge line of people crowding the entrance, and when I finally got inside it turned out they weren’t allowing any more people in. The Council chambers were full up.

ILWU Entrance Line

The crowd at the entrance to City Hall.

But sometimes you have to be flexible, and actually I was glad I made the trip anyway. It turned out that hundreds of people had shown up that day because they were worried that their jobs were going to be taken by robots. Earlier this month the Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a permit that would allow shipping giant Maersk to automate much of its operations at the Port of LA. But Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who represents the area, wrote a motion asking the City Council to assert jurisdiction in the matter and send it back to the Board for reconsideration.

It’s easy to see why people who work at the Port are freaked out. Maersk isn’t the first shipping company to push for automation, and it won’t be the last. Hundreds of jobs could disappear if Maersk goes forward, and as more companies follow suit it will probably lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. This, in turn, would be a devastating blow to San Pedro and Wilmington, where a lot of the local economy depends on those jobs.

ILWU Crowd Listening

Workers gathered on the lawn outside City Hall.

The crowd that showed up at City Hall on Friday was mostly made up of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Many of them wore T-shirts and carried signs protesting the move to automation. Those who couldn’t get inside gathered on the lawn outside City Hall where audio of the meeting was broadcast over a sound system. You could hear speaker after speaker telling the Council that they had to take action, and the meeting was frequently disrupted by roars of approval from those who had made it inside.

ILWU Crowd T Shirts

The ‘Yes to Boots, No to Robots’ T-shirts were a popular item.

ILWU We Are 99

Lots of folks carrying signs.

ILWU Humans Taxes

It’s true, robots don’t pay taxes.

In the end the Council voted unanimously to send the matter back to the Board of Harbor Commissioners for reconsideration, but the issue is far from resolved. Even if the Board changes its mind and decides to rescind the permit, Maersk claims it’s legally entitled to go ahead with the conversion anyway. They argue that other ports are automating and that they have to do the same if they want to stay competitive. And another complication is that for years the City of LA has been pushing shippers to move from diesel to electric technology. There are huge pollution issues in Wilmington and San Pedro because the Port of LA burns massive amounts of fossil fuels. Maersk’s conversion to automation has the potential to radically reduce emissions.

This is really just one more battle in what promises to be a long and painful war. Automation advocates claim that machines don’t just take jobs, that they can also create jobs, but no one has been able to spell out exactly how that’s going to happen. Academics say that more automation will drive increased economic activity which will bring new employment opportunities, but they don’t go into details except to say that the unemployed can move into the service sector. Really? Retailers are already replacing clerks with machines. Transit network companies like Uber are planning to shift to driverless cars. And fast food chains are quickly building automated outlets. In classic fashion, economists who make six figures are telling low-income workers not to worry about automation, because in the long run it will boost GDP and everyone will be a winner. But people who live in the real world have been dealing with wage stagnation for years, while their paychecks are being eaten away by rising housing and healthcare costs.

The workers at the Port of LA are right to be scared.

For more details, check out this story from the LA Times.

City Deals Blow to Automation Plan at the Port of LA


Pushing for Change at Jordan Downs

Aerial view of proposed Jordan Downs redevelopment project.

Aerial view of proposed Jordan Downs redevelopment project.

Sometimes you hear people complain that our elected officials are afraid to try anything new, that they devote most of their careers to propping up the status quo. I’ve said it myself, and I do feel like our politicians need to spend more time thinking outside the box.

But there are reasons why the folks at City Hall don’t like taking chances. It’s one thing to come up with an innovative idea. Making it a reality is a whole different story. It’s not uncommon for good ideas to get ground into dust by the system. Pushing for change can be a long, brutal process, sometimes dragging on for years and wearing everyone involved down. It’s not easy changing the status quo.

I first read about the Jordan Downs redevelopment initiative back in 2013. The idea was to take an aging housing project that was mired in poverty and remake it from the ground up. But this wasn’t just about knocking down one building and putting up another one. The idea was to create an expanded mixed-income complex where low-income families would live next door to middle class families. The project also included a new park and over 100,000 square feet of retail, bringing jobs and amenities to a community that hasn’t had had easy access to either.

Back in 2013 it was clear there were plenty of challenges, and the path hasn’t been easy. Though many of the current residents support the project, there are also fears about gentrification and displacement. And the process was complicated further by the news that the soil on the site was heavily contaminated, meaning that a long, costly clean-up would be necessary.

On top of all that, getting the funding for the project has been a huge hassle. Councilmember Joe Buscaino didn’t hide his anger when a grant application was rejected by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), at least in part because the city agency handling it hadn’t submitted all the required materials. This was the second time that HUD had declined to award funds for the project.

But things are still moving forward, and it’s hoped that construction will begin by the end of this year. No doubt there will be more challenges. The concerns about displacement are certainly well founded. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) has said that tenants “in good standing” will be guaranteed units in the new complex. However, they haven’t yet defined exactly what “in good standing” means. This could be a problem. A recent affordable housing project in Boyle Heights proposed the demolition of existing units to allow the construction of new ones. This sounded like a good idea until the residents of the existing units learned that strict conditions regarding right of return would have excluded many of them from moving into the new units.

The contamination also needs to be dealt with. I wondered how the clean-up was progressing, so I sent an e-mail to Joe Buscaino’s office. I got an answer within hours from Planning Deputy Heather Anderson. To put it in context, it’s important to understand that HACLA purchased additional property adjacent to Jordan Downs, and her response focusses on work at that site.

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) purchased the property knowing that it was a former industrial site, and with the intent to remove the contamination and clean up the property. They have been in the process of remediation with the oversight of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for a few months now. After removing 200,000 tons of contaminated soil, they are close to finished with the remediation. There has been testing of the soil around the site to ensure that nearby soil is safe.

She also attached a report documenting the clean-up through February. It sounds like the City and State are taking this seriously, which is good news. But it’s important to remember that there’s also concern about contaminants within the site that Jordan Downs currently occupies. Hopefully, as demolition of the existing buildings progresses, the City and State will continue to do the same thorough job of remediation.

There are those in the community who are skeptical about how this will all play out. This article from the LA Wave reports some of their concerns.

Feds Greenlight Plan to Redevelop Jordan Downs

Buscaino and Congressional Rep Janice Hahn both deserve credit for staying with this redevelopment effort. They could have stuck with the status quo and saved themselves a lot of headaches. And the residents of Jordan Downs also deserve a lot of credit for the hard work they’ve done as they’ve fought to improve their neighborhood. No doubt community activists and elected officials will be facing off as further issues arise. That’s to be expected. But hopefully everybody will continue to work together to build a better future for the people of Jordan Downs.

There are all sorts of possible pitfalls, but here’s the bottom line. If this project doesn’t go forward, the residents of Jordan Downs will continue to be trapped in the same cycle of poverty that has held the community back for decades. And that’s not an option. We can’t accept the status quo.

 Aerial view of Watts, looking northeast. Jordan Downs can be seen at lower center.  Photo by Howard D. Kelly, 1956.  From the Los Angeles Public Library, Kelly-Holiday Collection.

Aerial view of Watts, looking northeast. Jordan Downs can be seen at lower center. Photo by Howard D. Kelly, 1956. From the Los Angeles Public Library, Kelly-Holiday Collection.