Enterprise Mobility & the Connected Worker Blog

Automation & its Discontents: Will US Ports & Workers Find Common Ground?

by Emily Gove | 6/6/2023

Between Friday and Monday, the largest ports in the US went quiet. The ports of LA and Long Beach found their operations halted as dockworkers staged “concerted and disruptive work actions” in response to contract negotiation breakdown. Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a dockworkers’ union representing workers on the West coast, staged individual work slowdowns and in some cases avoided working entirely on Friday and Monday, an action designed to sway negotiations that have been ongoing since July. The dockworkers, also called longshoremen or stevedores, are pushing for better pay and job security in negotiations with shipping lines.

Automation, a key tension point between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), is viewed by workers as a threat to job security, while shipping lines and ports see it as a step toward better operational efficiency. The US West Coast is unique in its high activity against automation: not only are West Coast dockworkers part of one of the country’s strongest unions, but there is also both high value placed on dockworkers’ knowledge and high wariness around new technologies like automation, 5G, and advanced Wi-Fi technology.

When looking at port automation, the Port of Los Angeles was the first in the US to have an automated container terminal, and leads in many areas of technological advancement. However, US ports fall behind peers in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Some ports automate out of necessity, facing shortages of up to 20% of their workforce while attempting to handle higher cargo traffic. Other ports may invest in automation to gain an advantage over regional competitors: automated ports can offer 24/7 operations.

Top Motivators for Port Digitalization

Top Motivators for Port Digitalization Graph

From VDC’s Modern Port Report (2023): Of the options below, what are the current drivers of digitalization at your port? Select up to three.

New forms of port technology have the potential to open new groups of workers to the port environment at a key time. Demographically, dockworkers are mostly male – UNCTAD estimates that only 16% of port operations and services globally are performed by women. Workers also tend to be older than peers in environments like retail or manufacturing. These trends have limited the labor pool for ports and hindered operational advancement, especially in areas like technology and digitalization.

While technologies like automation and digitalization may be perceived as a threat to jobs, they also promise to redefine “traditional” port labor. Workflows like remote crane operation, port cybersecurity monitoring, and traffic system management will call for new jobs and new skillsets, inviting new groups of workers to consider jobs at ports. Dammam Port (Saudi Arabia), for example, has noted an increase in female crane operators with the ability to perform operations remotely. The Port of Botany (Australia) has reported a new focus on recruiting workers with online gaming skills, who are adept at managing new equipment.

Despite progress, continued conflicts between ports, shipping lines, and workers in the US show that port worker acceptance of technology will take time. Some conflicts around automation reached a resolution in April; however, compensation talks continue amid the threat of different types of workers that may be introduced to the port environment with automation. Ports sit at the threshold between new technology and a tradition of high-value mobile work: for ports able to harmonize the two forces, there is limitless potential.

For more information about port worker trends, see VDC’s report, The Modern Logistics Port: From Next Generation Network Infrastructure to Mobile Solution Requirements (2023).