The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to study the potential economic impact of automation on jobs at the Port of Los Angeles and back a union that opposes driverless cargo handlers.
Supervisor Janice Hahn proposed the study, saying the port was a source of “good, middle-class jobs” and raising concerns about robots replacing cargo handlers and other port workers.
“Do we really want a society full of robots?” she asked.
Her comments were prompted by the Los Angeles Harbor Commission’s 3-2 vote last week to allow automated cargo handlers at a container terminal operated at Pier 400 by APM Terminals, a subsidiary of Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company.
The Danish transport conglomerate says the new technology, which can operate around the clock, is needed for the port to stay competitive with East and Gulf Coast ports.
Hahn opposed the plan and said she wrote a letter to the commission about job losses and the ripple effect that could have on the larger regional economy.
“Port jobs don’t just support port families,” Hahn said. “They in turn support grocery stores, sandwich shops, dry cleaners and innumerable other businesses in and around the harbor area.”
The Board of Supervisors also voted to send a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council in support of ILWU’s efforts to protect local jobs.
City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the harbor area, has filed a motion asking the council to veto the commission’s vote. That motion is expected to be heard Friday, barring an earlier agreement between union leaders and Maersk/APM.
Port workers earn wages than are 85% higher than the median income of local residents, according to Ray Familathe, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13.
Union members have taken to the streets of San Pedro with signs reading “Robots don’t pay taxes” and “Robots don’t vote,” the Los Angeles Times reported. And a San Pedro resident shared her fears with the Harbor Commission last week.
“I am scared because my husband works at the docks and I don’t know how we could possibly afford our mortgage if he lost his job today,” Shannon Ross said. “Our community is right to be scared. These jobs are important to everyone.”
An April study issued by the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port employers, found that since the 2002 contract between the association and unions, the longshore workforce has grown 74% at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
In 2008, unions agreed to the right of operators to automate in exchange for other worker benefits, according to the study, which concluded that the effect of automation on the local economy would be outweighed by the effect of eroding market share on local, regional and state economies.
Hahn said she is concerned about the future.
“Too often we take the good paying jobs that our ports provide for granted,” Hahn said. “But we should be very worried about whether we are seeing the beginning of a larger move toward automation at our ports and in industries across the region and what that could mean for the future of good jobs in our communities.”