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


People’s Climate March in Wilmington

PCM 01 Basta

The communities clustered around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach face higher health risks due to contamination than any other part of LA.  With diesel trucks, heavy machinery, oil refineries and industrial waste all causing impacts on the local enviroment, the people who live in this area have suffered from the effects of toxic air, toxic water and toxic soil.  They’re getting it from all sides.

PCM 10 Cap

Thousands of people showed up for the march.

PCM 12 CO2

A shot of the crowd with the stage in the background.

PCM 14 Hands

This sign caught my eye.

So the People’s Climate March had a special meaning for the folks who live in these communities.  Last Saturday, April 29, there were demonstrations in cities across the US, and here in LA protesters congregated in Wilmington.  They started with a rally in Banning Park, and then marched to the nearby Tesoro Refinery to voice their fears about increased levels of contamination.

PCM 20 Cart

Even protesters gotta eat.

PCM 22 Cells

And they gotta check their cell phones.

Jane Fonda and Robert Kennedy, Jr. both showed up at the rally to talk about the importance of protecting the environment.  Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán gave a fiery speech, railing against the injustice of subjecting low-income familes to hazardous levels of contamination.

PCM 50 Stage

The crowd gathered in front of the stage.

PCM 52 Stage Wave

Spirits were high.

PCM 54 Stage NDB

Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan lays it down for the crowd.

It does seem crazy that at a time when the vast majority of scientists agree on the dangers of climate change, the US government is doing everything it can to roll back environmental protections.  But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen politicians put corporate profits above the public good.  Which is why we have to keep reminding them that they were put in office to serve us.

PCM 58 March

Protesters getting ready to march.

PCM 60 Lavender

It took a while to get things started.

PCM 62 Umbrellas

Lots of folks carrying umbrellas.

Marching is good.  Staying engaged with your elected officials is even better.  This is going to be a long fight, but we’ve won before, and we can win again.

PCM 90 Ref

Tesoro Refinery

Paying Attention to the Port

A view of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Boulevard.

A view of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Boulevard.

Geographically, Los Angeles is a little odd. A map of the city’s boundaries looks kind of like a jigsaw puzzle that somebody forgot to finish. We generally think of it as reaching from Downtown to the beach, the Valley to South LA. But actually there are a handful of smaller cities within that area, including San Fernando, Burbank, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that punch some sizable holes in the map. And one of the strangest aspects of the city’s outline is that the boundary stretches a long, thin arm to the south in order to embrace San Pedro and Wilmington, including the Port of Los Angeles.

A park at the water's edge, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the background.

A park at the water’s edge, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the background.

I imagine that many Angelenos, like me, completely forget that the San Pedro and Wilmington are part of the City of LA. They were annexed by (or consolidated with, depending on which source you consult) Los Angeles in 1909. Around the turn of the century it was becoming increasingly apparent to LA’s business community that the port was an economic powerhouse which would bring tremendous wealth to the region. The City’s leaders courted San Pedro and Wilmington for years, but the two smaller communities were concerned about losing their autonomy. Finally the deal was sealed in 1909, with LA promising to spend $10 million to improve the Port of LA.

Houses on a hill overlooking Harbor Boulevard.

Houses on a hill overlooking Harbor Boulevard.

Banner advertising a Dia de los Muertos celebration on Harbor Boulevard.

Banner advertising a Dia de los Muertos celebration on Harbor Boulevard.

Today the Port of LA is one of the busiest harbors in the world, handling billions of dollars in goods and creating thousands of jobs. It is a major part of the regional economy, which is why we should all be concerned about the current strife between labor and management. The issues are extremely complex, and I don’t pretend to understand them all. To boil it down to the basics, shippers are struggling to cut costs because of increasing competition and workers are afraid of reduced compensation and the loss of jobs. This article from the Daily News offers more background.

Port Congestion Worsens, Labor Talks Escalate

Stacks of containers seen from Harbor Boulevard.

Stacks of containers seen from Harbor Boulevard.

A crisis like this at the Port would be a problem any time of year, but it turns into an even bigger problem when it comes just before the holiday season. This is the period when retailers do most of their business, and there is massive anxiety about inventory not reaching the shelves in time. Tensions are running so high that Mayor Garcetti has stepped in to help, and business interests have sent a letter to President Obama asking him to intervene.

Rail lines carry containers from the Port to destinations throughout the nation.

Rail lines carry containers from the Port to destinations throughout the nation.

Resolving these problems won’t be easy. It’s not just a matter agreeing on a new contract. There are larger issues stemming from the way global markets are evolving, and even if this situation is resolved, there will be many challenges to come. These developments don’t just affect the local economy. The impacts will be felt throughout the state and the nation as well.

For those of us who tend to forget about San Pedro, Wilmington and the Port of LA, this should serve as a reminder that they’re vital part of our city.

A view of the Port from the water's edge.

A view of the Port from the water’s edge.