Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Biden envoy says that automating ports doesn’t have to cost jobs

Biden envoy says that automating ports doesn’t have to cost jobs
Shipping containers are seen in the Ningbo Zhoushan Port in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, 09 June 2021. EPA-EFE/Alex Plavevski

The White House’s supply-chain envoy said the ports and logistics industry must move toward automation, a sticking point in protracted contract talks between US West Coast dockworkers and their employers.

Automation is inevitable and the industry should “move there deliberately as opposed to getting dragged”, Stephen Lyons said on Tuesday. 

Lyons, along with outgoing Labour Secretary Marty Walsh, have been involved in negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that represents 22,000 West Coast dockworkers and the Pacific Maritime Association – which speaks for companies – over a new labor agreement to replace one that expired in July. 

The use of port automation and questions over how work is assigned at certain terminals are some of the major points of contention in the talks. The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together are the top gateway for US imports from China, are among the world’s least efficient container ports, according to a ranking by the World Bank and IHS Markit.

Automation solution

In conversations with the union and the shipping industry, Lyons said he describes a role for automation that doesn’t displace workers from jobs only humans can do.

“Automation has to be part of the solution going forward, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of labor,” Lyons said. “Labour has to be part of the solution.” 

It’s reasonable for businesses to look at investments in technology that would enhance production and efficiency, Lyons said. 

Lyons spoke at the TPM23 Conference by S&P Global Market Intelligence in Long Beach, California, where more than 3,700 representatives of the container-shipping industry are gathered to kick off contract-signing season after years of pandemic turmoil left many importers waiting months for their goods — and paying record-high freight rates. As supply strains have eased, a potential capacity glut has sent those rates tumbling and could turn the tide against the ocean carriers’ run of unprecedented profits. 

Lyons said he will likely leave the Biden administration at the end of May, when his term ends. 

“That’s what I’ll probably stick to,” said Lyons, who replaced John Porcari as President Joe Biden’s ports and supply-chain envoy in May last year. 

Biden intends to nominate Deputy Labour Secretary Julie Su to replace Walsh, and she is expected to lead the department on an acting basis until the Senate takes up her nomination. BM/DM

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