Redefining ‘impact’: LA’s automation debate

The Port of Los Angeles is involved in a heated automation debate. Photo: Joey Zanotti CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/45958601@N02/31112324724 The Port of Los Angeles is involved in a heated automation debate. Photo: Joey Zanotti CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/45958601@N02/31112324724
Industry Database

As APM Terminals has recently found to its cost, sentiment can trump both plans and contracts, especially when it concerns automation at Los Angeles.

Last week’s a public debate before the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners notionally centred on whether the permit for development of Pier 400 was consistent with LA’s Port Master Plan and the California Coastal Act. However, it quickly became clear that it wasn’t just the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), but the Board itself that wasn't happy with a narrow interpretation, extending it to embrace the socio-economic impact on the southern Californian region.

The previously negotiated agreement gave the terminal operator the right to automate, but the argument from union representative Gary Herrera sidestepped that by saying the focus was now “not on the contract but the community”.

Moreover, the notion that automation would support clean-air compliance was dispatched when the commissioners ascertained that non-automated, electrical equipment would achieve the same ends.

Further, while the port has broken records for a third consecutive year with volumes reaching 9.4m teu, Mr Herrera underlined this was in no way attributable to the port’s already automated terminals, where, he said, “efficiency is down significantly”, as evidenced by Trapac’s dismal 17 moves per hour. He added that APM Terminals had, in a private meeting last year, already admitted that the reason for automation was not productivity or clean air compliance, but labour savings.

However, Commissioner Edward Renwick noted that despite record throughput, the port has “lost monumental amounts of market share” over the last decade and a half: Commissioner Lucia Moreno-Linares added: “We have to find a way to work with each other... to compromise so we all come out ahead.”

That may not prove so easy - but it will be worthwhile seeing what happens when the debate reconvenes in a few weeks time.

By Stevie Knight

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