Port of Los Angeles
Port of Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.

Dockworkers troubled by the prospect of automated electric vehicles coming to the Port of Los Angeles will push the City Council Friday to veto the Harbor Commission’s approval of the plan.

The commission last week authorized the Danish firm Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping company and one of the major cargo operators at the Port of Los Angeles, to bring in several automated and electronic tractors to its subsidiary APM Terminals, raising fears of job loss among the dockworkers. Maersk and APM are owned by the A.P Moller conglomerate.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino asked earlier this week that the council consider a veto of the commission’s action. But even if the council takes action, it may have limited effect. APM executives sent a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and council members saying that even if a veto is approved, the company is contractually permitted to use the automated equipment.

Wim Lagaay, the chairman of the APM Terminals Pacific, said in the letter to the council and the mayor that his company has the contractual authority to replace its own fleet.

“APMT has the undisputed right under its lease and its collective bargaining agreement to introduce automated technology of this sort and does not require and permit or any other port, city or state approval to operate automated, driverless trucks,” Wim Lagaay, chairman of APM Terminals Pacific, wrote in the letter.

He said if the council does veto the commission’s action, it would only stop electric tractors from coming to the terminals, but it would not stop APM from seeking future automation.

The battery-operated tractors will replace some of the company’s diesel-powered vehicles, a way to increase productivity — as they can be operated 24 hours a day — and to reduce carbon emissions, Lagaay said.

Buscaino said the issue of automation “is a subject, like climate change, that we must address collectively and with focus, so that the ability of humans to sustain themselves is not decimated.”

“This letter minimizes the tremendous impacts to the Harbor community, and that is the reason I felt compelled to bring this issue to the Los Angeles City Council,” he said. “We must fully vet and understand implications of approving APM’s permit.”

Tens of thousands of port employees acquire shift assignments each day, and those opportunities may be reduced between 500 to 700 per day, according to International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13, the union that represents port dockworkers. The union appealed the approval of automated and electronic devices, citing a lack of details in an environmental review process.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to conduct a study of the potential economic impact on automation of jobs at the port.

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.

Maersk, which is headquartered in Copenhagen, contends the new technology is needed for the port to stay competitive with East and Gulf Coast ports.

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