Man vs. Machine: APM Terminals seeks automated cargo-handling equipment.

Man vs. Machine: APM Terminals seeks automated cargo-handling equipment.

A skirmish pitting human workers against advanced machinery at the Port of Los Angeles was put on hold last week — but the larger battle over automation at Southern California’s ports continues to rage.

On April 15, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners for the second time delayed voting on a permit that would allow port terminal operator APM Terminals to replace the manned lifts and shovel trucks that stack cargo containers with electric, self-guided vehicles.

APM Terminals’ parent company, Danish shipping and oil conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk, wants to automate its facility at the Port of Los Angeles — an initiative the company maintains is essential to stay competitive.

But a larger fight has erupted over the fate of port workers writ large as shipping companies and terminal operators race to find ways to increase efficiency, reduce labor costs and — of particular import for Southern California — comply with strict air-quality regulations.

“Everyone is watching to see how L.A. is handling this issue,” said Tom Boyd, a spokesman for APM Terminals. “Every other port in the world wants to pick up more cargo.”

Boyd said he thinks automation will help fend off those competitors.

“This is a long-term issue in terms of competitiveness,” he said.

Bitter fight

The dockworker’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union estimates APM Terminals’ automation efforts would cost them around 700 jobs at the port, and it’s opposing the move. Large-scale protests, organized by the union, have drawn legislators and other workers to the cause.

“We are fighting absolutely for port jobs, but the issue of job impact, economic impact is much bigger when you look at the entire workforce,” said Ray Familathe, president of ILWU Local 13, which represents dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The ports each have one automated terminal already. The largest of the two, the $1.5 billion Long Beach Container Terminal, operates with 30% of the workforce that a conventional terminal does, according to a union estimate. The union is especially concerned about automation at Pier 400 because it’s the busiest of L.A.’s terminals.

Efficiency push

Automation could soon be the norm at ports, according to a report released in November by New York-based consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Inc. The report projects terminal operators will spend $10 billion to $15 billion over the next five years on automation. Almost 40 ports around the world have fully or partly automated terminals, about half of which were completed in the past six years

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