Editorial: Many ports in an automation storm

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The two sides in last week’s port workers contract negotiations were up against some extremely complex global issues.

It is not an easy time to plan ahead for the current year, let alone the next five.

When it comes to shipping, the tides of change are shifting fast in an industry that is averse to adjusting operational course quickly. But adjust it must – in B.C., in California, in all other North American trade gateways.

Alliances and consolidation are shrinking the field of choice for customers of international container carriers; larger ships are reducing the number of port calls shipping lines make and the number of ports they use.

Terminals and ports are therefore under increasing pressure to load and unload ships faster or risk being relegated to backwater status.

That requires more than retooled deployment of longshore workers and infrastructure.

It requires integration of disruptive technology into terminal and port operations, because cargo containers will flow along trade channels that offer the least resistance.

There are no guarantees that flow will be through B.C. ports, regardless of the geographic advantage they have over other transpacific cargo entry points.

Business in this province can only hope that the tentative contract agreement reached between B.C. maritime employers and workers recognizes that, because far more than their interests relies on maintaining the West Coast’s reputation for cargo movement reliability.

Compromise and co-operation might sound trite to union and industry hardliners, but in the new world of digital mobility they are key to retaining and building market share in a port sector in Canada that annually generates $24 billion in economic output.

Automation is coming soon to a port near you. It will displace workers and retool employment opportunities down at the waterfront.

It will also separate winners from losers in the 21st-century trade and logistics world.

The winners will open new avenues of opportunity for companies, their workers and their communities; the losers will close all three.