California

City deals blow to automation plan at the Port of L.A. The robots could still be coming

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 28, 2019: A supporter of the port workers holds up a “No more robots” shirt a
A supporter of dockworkers from the Port of L.A. holds up a “No More Robots” shirt during a Los Angeles City Council meeting on Friday. Hundreds showed up to urge the council to block a plan to allow driverless electric cargo handlers at the port.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Siding with dockworkers fearful of losing their jobs to robots, the Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to overrule a permit granted by a panel of harbor commissioners that would pave the way for driverless electric cargo handlers to operate at the Port of L.A.

However, the company that sought the permit — shipping giant Maersk — says it will proceed with its automation plan anyway, throwing into doubt the validity of the council’s action.

The hearing nevertheless allowed City Council members to publicly decry the trend of automation, earning them raucous applause from the scores of dockworkers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who packed the council chamber at City Hall.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who grew up in San Pedro and represents communities around the port, led his colleagues in rejecting the permit. He gave an emotional speech, describing how his 16-year-old son asked him what would happen to their relatives — cousins, aunts and uncles — who work at the port.

“For me, this is personal. This is clearly personal,” said Buscaino, adding that Los Angeles would “refuse to be the next Detroit” — a nod to that city’s loss of auto manufacturing jobs.

The council’s action was widely anticipated after last week, when Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointees on the Board of Harbor Commissioners voted to approve a permit for global logistics company Maersk on its 484-acre facility.

Maersk and port officials who supported the permit say that thwarting automation will accelerate the loss of market share by ports in L.A. and Long Beach to ports on the East Coast and Gulf Coast.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 28, 2019: Gary Herrera, a port worker and vice-president of ILWU, speaks to P
Gary Herrera, a port worker and vice president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, speaks to Port of Los Angeles workers outside Los Angeles City Hall.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The company’s executives argue that, while Los Angeles dockworkers work 16 hours a day, the unmanned vehicles can operate 24 hours a day. Maersk has acknowledged that several hundred jobs would be affected by replacing current cargo carriers with the driverless vehicles.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell cast the company as more concerned with profits than people, saying “innovation must improve working conditions, not eliminate the workforce.”

Councilman Mike Bonin alleged that the permit violated the port’s master plan, explaining after the vote that applications for such permits “must be minor in nature.”

“Who is their right mind would consider the total automation of the largest terminal at the nation’s largest port to be minor?” he asked.

The permit approved by the harbor commissioners was for electric chargers and other equipment. In a letter to city officials this week, the company said that any council vote wouldn’t stop its plan. But if the council veto does stand, Maersk said it plans to use automated carriers fitted with diesel motors to charge their batteries, bypassing the need for chargers, Wi-Fi antenna poles and related equipment.

Maersk subsidiary APM Terminals “has the undisputed right under its lease and its collective bargaining agreement to introduce automated technology of this sort and does not require any permit or any other port, city or state approval,” according to the letter, signed by Wim Lagaay, chief executive of APM Terminals North America, and Lee Kindberg, Maersk’s director of environment and sustainability.

Monday’s letter was prompted by what Maersk deemed Buscaino’s “misunderstanding” of the situation.

Hundreds of dockworkers and their supporters showed up for Friday’s council vote, hoisting signs with slogans such as “Vote No on Robots.” Ahead of the meeting, a gaggle of union members walked from corner to corner outside City Hall, chanting, “ILWU! No Robots!” One sign read “Human Lives Matter.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 28, 2019: Port of L.A. officials sit in the front row as longshoreman support
Port of L.A. officials sit in the front row as dockworkers and their supporters cheer the Los Angeles City Council's decision to veto a permit for Maersk to introduce driverless electric cargo handlers at the Port of L.A.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Rebecca Nuhi described how her job has provided a roof for herself and her five kids. “Robots cannot replace human beings, so stand with us, please,” said Nuhi, who appeared to break into sobs. “I’m pleading.”

Representatives from the Sunrise Movement on climate change and the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also urged the council to veto the permit.

The council’s reversal of the commission vote is a procedure known as a “245,” so named for the section of the City Charter that allows it. The decision sends the permit back to the commission to reconsider.

Council members also moved Friday to consider creating a blue ribbon commission to study the issue of automation and job development at the port.

After the vote, APM Terminals spokesman Tom Boyd said the company is “disappointed by the L.A. City Council, who disregarded the actions of the Port of Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners vote — and like Councilman Buscaino mentioned, we hope the situation will be resolved in the near future.”

Garcetti stepped in several months ago to help with negotiations between the terminal, port officials and the union. Those talks, which have focused on mitigating job losses, are expected to continue.

Separately, Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) introduced a bill this month that would give jurisdiction over port automation to the three-member State Lands Commission, consisting of the lieutenant governor, state controller and state director of finance.

Times staff writers Margot Roosevelt and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith