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

Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

To be sure, the truckers make more money by moving loads faster. But that's not the only reason, he said. At automated terminals, "No one's rude to them. The machines are more polite than the longshoremen."

Tensions between truckers and dockworkers are "cultural," LaBar added. "Most people in the ILWU are from families that have been in the union for generations. They wear a certain sense of pride. Whereas the trucking community is made up of a lot of immigrants and English is their second language. They get treated really unfairly."

ILWU officials reject drivers' claims that they are disrespected. They blame terminal operators, saying tensions result from technology glitches or from skimping on staffing. As they see it, cargo flow -- and tempers -- would be smoothed with more security guards to direct traffic and more clerks to service machine operators.

"If they're upset at a crane driver because he's not getting their can fast enough, they don't know that maybe that crane driver's computer screen gave him bad location," said Ray Familathe, president of ILWU Local 13. "Now he has to call a clerk, but the terminal operator staffs one clerk for three to five cranes. The clerk says, 'Hey, George, I'm on my way,' but he's servicing multiple cranes."

As for dockworkers' lunch and rest breaks, truckers would not object if they too were union members, entitled to similar privileges, ILWU officials contend. They trace the roots of resentment to the deregulation of trucking in the 1980s, which spurred a massive national shift from unionized trucker employees to independent contractors.

"Large corporations pit worker against worker," said Joe Gasperov, president of ILWU Local 63, which represents the clerks. "I feel sorry for the truckers. They're exploited. They're paid by the load, not the hour, so they assume all the risk of terminal delays. And some companies care more about saving a buck than servicing the trucks."

 

Cargo would move faster if terminals were willing to pay dockworkers for a third shift, he added. But under the ILWU contract, a third shift beyond the regular two eight-hour shifts requires premium pay.

Global forces are shaping the debate over automation, and the tensions between truckers, dockworkers and terminal operators.

The rise of mega-ships and alliances between huge shipping firms to cut costs led to sharing vessels and terminals and what LaBar, the trucking executive, calls a logistics "nightmare."

In the past, truckers picked up full containers, dropping off empty ones at the same terminal. Today, they race around the ports delivering an empty container to one terminal and fetching new cargo at a different terminal with operators often issuing confusing signals over where containers are located.

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