Facing a crowd of more than 1,200 protesting dockworkers, the Port of Los Angeles’ Harbor Commission delayed a decision Tuesday over whether to open the way to automation in North America’s largest terminal — a dispute involving jobs, clean air and Southern California’s dominance as an import gateway to U.S. shoppers.
The 30-day postponement on a construction permit for Maersk, the giant shipping firm, was requested by Mayor Eric Garcetti, who wrote the commission that he was “confronted by a complex set of negotiations which would benefit from more time.”
It was the second delay Garcetti had requested on the permit to replace about 100 diesel tractors, which are operated by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with driverless electric vehicles, potentially eliminating hundreds of jobs.
Garcetti had requested a 28-day delay on March 21 but did not hold a meeting on the issue until Monday, when he led a six-hour closed-door session with union officials and representatives of Maersk, its APM Terminals subsidiary and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which bargains with labor on behalf of terminal operators.
The fierce opposition from the union, which gave $250,000 to support Garcetti’s 2013 bid for mayor, according to campaign filings, presents the mayor with a difficult task.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents communities around the port, has indicated he will bring the issue before the City Council if the Harbor Commission approves the permit. At the same time, Maersk and port officials are adamant that stifling automation will accelerate the L.A. and Long Beach ports’ loss of market share to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.
“Due to the hardworking women and men of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and companies like APM Terminals, the Port of Los Angeles has become the busiest container port in the Western Hemisphere,” Garcetti wrote in the letter. “This achievement has not come without occasional challenges, but working together we have always found a way forward that has benefitted this port, our city and our economy.”
ILWU officials said the postponement of the permit decision would give the union more time to ramp up opposition. They have already enlisted the support of more than a dozen state Assembly and Senate members, along with seven neighborhood councils and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
“This is another day we get to live,” said Gary Herrera, ILWU vice president, before a cheering, whistling crowd in front of the cavernous San Pedro baggage handling facility where the commission met. “In the old days, there were 15 rounds of boxing. Today was round No. 5, and guess what? We’re still standing.”
Maersk said in a statement: “We appreciate Mayor Garcetti’s leadership on this important matter. After months of delay, we look forward to working expeditiously through the process he’s outlined to make the port competitive.”
The permit for Maersk’s 484-acre terminal would allow the installation of charging stations and other infrastructure to support the automated vehicles.
The opposition of the ILWU and several affiliated unions, which represent about 12,000 workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is complicated by the fact that they explicitly agreed in a 2008 contract, renewed in 2015, to allow the ports to introduce automation.
Two smaller terminals, one at the Port of Long Beach and one in Los Angeles, already operate driverless electric vehicles similar to the ones Maersk proposes.
However, union members said they had believed the automation covered in the contract involved only technology to assist them in the grueling work of unloading cargo from massive container ships — not to replace their jobs entirely.
As the protesters marched through San Pedro toward the meeting, they waved American flags and hoisted signs reading, “Robots Don’t Pay Taxes,” “Humanity First” and “Community Conservation Above Corporate Greed.”
With base wages of $42 an hour, annual pay with overtime and skills-based bonuses can boost wages for dockworkers to more than $100,000 a year, offering rare middle-class jobs for blue-collar workers without college degrees.
If Maersk is allowed to automate, the rest of the port complex’s 13 terminals will probably follow suit, the union contends. Union officials don’t oppose introducing battery-electric vehicles, but they want Maersk to buy manned, rather than driverless, vehicles.
“I’m a fourth-generation longshoreman,” said Rick Medina, 42, who was marching with his 10-year-old son, David. “This town was based on longshoremen, on the waterfront, on fishermen, on refineries. We have to protect these jobs. There’s nothing a machine can do that a man can’t do.”
Maersk contends that cost savings from automation will offset the price of switching diesel equipment to battery-operated machines. The move is part of $14 billion in upgrades required at both ports to slash pollution and reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 20-page report commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Assn.
The report, shared with the Garcetti administration this week, contends that capital investment required by clean air regulations “will be extremely difficult to recover through rate increases” on retailers shipping through the port. Past increases have prompted them to bypass Southern California and ship directly to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports, it said.
The association contends that high labor costs have meant that container charges at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are 90% to 165% above those of competing East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.
The 2016 widening of the Panama Canal has meant that the biggest ships, which previously had to unload cargo from Asia in Southern California, can now deliver goods destined for the Midwest and East Coast to the Gulf Coast and Atlantic ports.
The share of U.S. Asian imports moving through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is expected to erode to 42% by 2030 from 56% in 2003, the report predicted.
The Southern California port complex accounts for 31.4% of the $1-trillion gross metropolitan product of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area. More than 179,000 jobs are connected to the ports in longshore, trucking, rail, warehouse and other maritime services, and in businesses that depend on those workers, according to the report.
The Pacific Maritime Assn.’s report was written by Michael Nacht, a UC Berkeley public policy professor; Larry Henry, founder of ContainerTrac Inc., which provides automated systems for ports; and economist John Martin, president of Martin Associates, a port consultancy.
Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.