As LA ports automate, some workers are cheering on the robots

Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Day after day, Walter Diaz, an immigrant truck driver from El Salvador, steers his 18-wheeler toward the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Will it take him a half hour to pick up his cargo? Or will it be as long as seven hours? He never knows.

Diaz is paid by the load, so he applauds the arrival of more waterfront robots, which promise to speed turnaround times at a port complex that handles about a third of the nation's imported goods.

"I'm for automation," Diaz says. "One hundred percent. One hundred percent."

But what about the thousands of International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers who have mounted massive protests, saying the robots will replace human jobs? The ILWU members, who transfer cargo from ships to trucks and direct terminal traffic, "don't care about the drivers," said Diaz, 41, who has serviced the ports for two decades. "Never. We sit in line while they take two-hour breaks. With automation, we don't have that problem."

The arrival of robots at the nation's largest marine terminal, a 484-acre facility run by Danish conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk, is exposing a stark economic divide between two sets of Southern California workers.

On one side are well-paid union members, many of them third-and fourth generation dockworkers. On the other is a non-union, largely immigrant and Spanish-speaking workforce of independent contractors, who lack the hourly pay, overtime guarantees, pensions, healthcare insurance and job security that ILWU workers enjoy.


The powerful longshore locals, with some 9,300 registered members, captured public attention earlier this year, battling Maersk's plans with marches through San Pedro, boisterous public hearings, community petitions and support from elected officials. In the end, they were unable to stop the project because, in exchange for higher pay and better benefits over the years, ILWU contracts have explicitly allowed for automation.

Notably, throughout the four-month uproar, the ports' 13,000 truckers were all but absent from the debate.

"The truckers are mostly non-union, so they don't vote as a block or make political contributions as a block," said Wim Lagaay, chief executive of Maersk's APM Terminals North America. "They are not organized. They don't have lobbyists. They don't have a voice."

But on private Facebook pages, which count thousands of drivers, they do.


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