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

Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The alliances "created a lot of efficiencies for the ocean carriers and created a lot of inefficiencies for everybody else," LaBar said. "You need twice as many drivers to do the same amount of work."

Nonetheless, drivers seem to direct as much ire at their fellow blue-collar workers as at terminal operators.

"You would think drivers would be empathetic towards the ILWU, but they're not," said William Flores, driver relations manager for Pacifica Trucks, a Long Beach company. "It's adversarial. That's the sad reality. Everyone is concerned about their own profitability."

At a recent barbecue organized by truckers in Carson's Victoria Park, Kristine Castanier, who owns three big rigs with her boyfriend, Anthony Vides, said she supports automation "because we wait hours and hours in long lines." She blames the dockworkers, she said, because "they leave early to go to lunch and come back late."

Moreover, she adds, some clerks "that guide us to get our loads are really rude. They think I'm on the wrong spot when I'm really not. I've been called the B-word a couple of times."

Nearby, Marvin Estrada, who has hauled cargo at the ports for 12 years, was also looking forward to more automation. "If you're offered a load from APM Maersk, nobody wants to go there," he said. "Why? Because you take five, six hours to get in and out."

As for dockworkers' fear of robots, "I feel sorry for them," he said. "But honestly, they've been lazy. If it's hot, they get more lazy. If it's cold, they're lazy. They're paid by the hour, so they don't care if they move a container in one hour or two hours."

Familathe, the ILWU 13 president, suggests drivers blame dockworkers for delays "because we are the people they see directly in front of them. When you're at a retail store trying to check out, you don't go yell at Macy's, you take your frustration out on the poor girl at the counter."

Diaz, Castanier and Estrada, like many port drivers, say they choose to be independent contractors paid by the load because they can earn more than the $20 to $30 an hour that trucking companies pay employees. (That amounts to about half of dockworkers' base pay.) They also oppose a new state law, AB 5, curbing the use of independent contractors.

The United Brotherhood of Teamsters, which supports the new contractor law, has been seeking to organize Southern California port drivers for a decade, arguing that they are too often cheated by trucking companies. But it has only succeeded in unionizing roughly 1,000 of the 13,000 drivers. Under federal law, only employees may join a union, not independent contractors.


ILWU officials argue that truckers will also be harmed by automation. Eventually, they contend, robots will slow down, rather than speed up cargo logistics overall, causing the Southern California ports to lose business. And if there's less cargo, there's less work for truckers, not just for dockworkers.

They cite a 2018 report by McKinsey & Co., "The Future of Automated Ports," which found that while labor expenses decline "so does productivity," due to "operational challenges -- a shortage of capabilities, poor data, siloed operations, and difficulty handling exceptions" when a robot needs a human to intervene.

Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, declines to reveal the cost of revamping its Los Angeles terminal, but ILWU officials, after consulting with robot manufacturers, estimate the outlay at $300 million to $400 million. The capital expense, they say, is discouraging other Southern California port companies from automating.

"APM hasn't been shy in saying it's about reducing labor costs," Familathe said. "But other terminal operators don't have the open checkbook or the deep pockets of the richest shipping company on the planet."

The ILWU has met with terminals across the twin ports and "crunched the numbers based on productivity," he added. "I'm hearing from five of them that they won't automate. The others are not saying anything."

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