Editorial: B.C. ports need automation enlightenment

As Business in Vancouver documented earlier this year, unionized marine cargo employees all over North America share similar port automation concerns raised by International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU). 


The findings from the recently released marine terminal automation study commissioned by the union that represents 6,000 longshore workers in B.C. are indeed cause for concern for the union’s membership and the wider economy connected with marine cargo movement. It estimated, for example, that automation could eliminate 9,200 marine terminal jobs in B.C.
But that need not be the end of the story.
In California’s massive Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the ILWU’s American counterpart has, over the past year, battled APM Terminals’ plans to automate some of its infrastructure with battery-powered cargo-handling equipment at North America’s largest container terminal.
But APM’s initiative is as much about eliminating diesel machinery to meet more stringent Port of Los Angeles air emissions regulations as it is about improving the efficiency of servicing the larger container ships being deployed on the lucrative transpacific trade route and keeping it competitive with terminals in Mexico and elsewhere in North America. 
Saner heads prevailed in Los Angeles with an agreement in late July between the ILWU, APM and the Pacific Maritime Association to establish a training program to upgrade ILWU member skills to work with the incoming automation infrastructure.
B.C. port employers and employees need to embrace that approach.
Port terminal automation has to be deployed strategically to deliver cost savings and efficiency gains. That requires it to be planned, operated and maintained by a highly skilled workforce. As with technological disruption in other sectors, traditional labour jobs will be lost down at the waterfront, but new opportunities will be created. 
It will take compromise and co-
operation from unions and employers to ensure that B.C. ports have the skilled workforce needed for what will continue to be a significant human factor in the port automation equation.