Ports and workers’ power

Submitted by AWL on 14 September, 2016 - 12:27 Author: Martin Thomas

"The RWG [container] terminal [in Rotterdam, 2.35m teu capacity], with its fully automated cranes, is operated by a team of no more than 10 to 15 people on a day-to-day basis. Most of its 180 employees aren’t longshoremen, but IT specialists” (Journal of Commerce, 4 Feburary 2016).

The managing director says: “We are in fact, an IT company that handles containers”.

Compare: in 1900 the Port of London was the busiest port in the world. It had 50,000 workers shifting cargo mostly by hand, as they had done for thousands of years. It handled 7 million tons of cargo.

“Teu” means “twenty-foot equivalent unit” (most containers are 20 feet or 40 feet), so up to 20 tons. The RWG terminal, one of several in Rotterdam, with its 180 workers, can handle probably 20 or so million tons a year, three times as much weight, and vastly more value, than the 50,000 London dockers of 1900.

In Rotterdam, too, one operator in front of a computer screen can direct 10 fully-automated machines that store and tranship incoming iron ore and coal. Another terminal for bulk [non-containerised] cargoes, in Shanghai, also has all its operations workers in control rooms, not on the quays.

Container terminals, however highly automated, always require manual labour to “lash” (lock down) the containers on the ships, or unlash them. Bulk terminals are almost always highly mechanised.

Port work went through a technological revolution in the 1960s and 70s, with “containerisation”. Now it is going through another technological revolution, with automation.“Containerisation” meant packing non-bulk cargoes in standard metal boxes. It came together with:

• bigger cranes

• motor vehicles to move containers round quays

• bigger trucks, bigger highways

• bigger and “cellular” ships, built so that containers can be lifted into and out of standard spaces

• ports moving out of big cities and to deeper-water quays with direct access to inter-city highways and rail lines.

It eliminated almost all direct manual cargo-handling in ports, and also most of the clerical and warehousing work of keeping track of cargoes.

The story of containerisation and automation, however, is not just one of machines replacing workers. And port automations today are multi-faceted and often slow and piecemeal. These facts have implications for the response that workers and trade unions should make.

Because containerisation went together with an expansion in the amount of stuff shipped, it came with an expansion, not a shrinking, of the overall workforce in the “logistics” industry.180,000 workers are employed in the Port of Rotterdam, by 1,200 firms. The Port expects to want 10,000 more workers by 2030.The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates employment in logistics will increase by 22% between 2012 and 2022.

The industry already employs about six million people; a trade group says it will be looking to fill 270,000 extra jobs each year.Port automations are patchy. Most of the clerical work has been automated almost everywhere. But “only around 2.5 percent of global container volume is currently handled by fully automated terminals and their market share will rise to between 4 percent and 5 percent when ongoing projects are completed”, according to a crane-making company boss (Journal of Commerce, 15 June 2016).

In the USA “no terminal has automated both functions that are ripe for automation: horizontal ground transport from the foot of the ship-to-shore crane to the container stacks, and the movement of containers within the stacks” (JoC, 2 October 2014).

The TraPac terminal at the Port of Los Angeles is the leader in automation. It says it will be fully converted to Automatic Stacking Cranes by 2018.“Although it eliminates some jobs, automation fosters creation of new jobs that call for a higher level of skills and higher pay. TraPac, for example, has hired 40 additional mechanics to maintain and repair the costly, sophisticated machines” (JoC, 2 October 2014).

“Automation” may mean remote control (of a quay crane, for example) from a driver in an office, or full automation, where for example the work and the paths of automatic straddle carriers are calculated by computer with no human operator.Lashing and unlashing, the main remaining heavy manual job on wharves, has no near-term prospect of being automated: a priority for unions is to ensure that the waterside workforce does not become divided into a one group operating part-automated equipment, and another, maybe contracted-out, doing the lashing.

Despite the ballyhoo about Rotterdam, right now port operators are hesitant about the heavy investments needed to automate more fully. Highly-automated terminals are generally new-built ones. On the whole (there are some exceptions), it is difficult and expensive to convert an existing terminal to more automatic operation,“Antwerp doesn’t have highly automated terminals, but it is achieving higher productivity than its rivals in Rotterdam” (JoC, 4 February 2016).

“Shanghai, the world’s biggest container port, runs primarily a manual operation” (JoC, 2 October 2014).

Automation or high semi-automation is found mostly in northern Europe, east Asia, and Australia, less in the USA. Even in northern Europe, a 2013 study found most container terminals using manually-driven straddle carriers, rail-mounted gantry cranes, rubber-tyred gantry cranes, or tractors, rather than anything more fully-automated, and with no less productivity than the more-automated terminals.

“Is this a good time to automate? Probably not. We’ve got an oversupply of terminal capacity”, OECD official Olaf Merk told a port bosses’ conference (JoC, 15 June 2016).

World trade grew faster than world output from after World War 2 through to 2008, and especially fast after the spread of containerisation in the 1970s. But, since a recovery in 2010 from the extreme slump level of 2009, it has grown much more slowly. Hong Kong’s container volume fell 9.5% in 2015, and Singapore’s 8.7%. Shanghai’s grew slightly, but a trade journal estimates “China port volume set for slowdown after 2015 growth” (JoC 22 January 2016).

At the same time, large investment projects planned before 2008 are coming on stream. “The total current container fleet contains almost 5,000 ships with a total capacity of almost 16 million TEUs. Almost 3 million TEUs of this capacity is from the ‘super-Post Panamax’ ships (i.e. those with more than 8,000 TEU capacity), with another 2.5 million TEUs on order. There is no apparent place to profitably assign these big ships” (World Economic Forum).

Moreover, most of the modifications needed for mega-ships are not to do with automation: deeper channels, longer wharves, bigger storage areas, bigger cranes. And the infrastructure behind the terminal is as important as the terminal itself. It is no use having a highly automated terminal if the containers come in to it, and go out of it, on trucks trying to navigate overcrowded roads.

The new DP World terminal at London Gateway has Automatic Stacking Cranes, but its quay cranes are still manually operated, and of its straddle carriers it reports only that they “are planned to move from manual to automated operation in the future”. It touts for business on the strength of its deep water and the 300-hectare logistics park being built behind it with “road connections to the North, South, East and West via an eight-lane highway; and the UK’s largest port rail terminal”.

The new JadeWeserPort in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, just west of Bremerhaven, likewise boasts about its 160-hectare logistics park, which it claims to be “one of the most efficient transport hubs in Northern Europe”. Its straddle carriers are not automated. Its claim is that its deep water and long wharves will make it the only port in Germany able to deal with mega-ships.

Both those new terminals are still running way below capacity. The whole industry is in slump. According to Nils Andersen, boss of the giant shipping and ports company Maersk, “the industry is losing money, probably pretty big sums”, though Maersk made US $3.1 billion profit in 2015 and expects some, though smaller, profits in 2016. CMA CGM also made profits in 2015, of US $567 million. Cosco made profits of US $43.7 million, small in relation to its revenues of US $9 billion. DP World made profits of US $883 million in 2015, and Hutchison Port Holdings US $370 million. Hanjin has recently gone bust.

Australia has the world’s most automated port industry. The Patrick’s terminal in Brisbane, with its auto-strads, is as automated in its crane-stacking-truck operations as any terminal in the world. When the new ICTSI terminal in Melbourne starts up in January 2017, it will be one of the first in the world to have automation or remote control in all dimensions.Both the main container terminal operators, Patrick’s and DP World, have pioneered automations in the smaller port of Brisbane, accepting interim losses there, and automating in larger terminals when they have refined the technology in a smaller terminal.The Patrick’s auto-strad option is a version of automation potentially adaptable to existing terminals. It does not require digging up the quay pavement to install magnets or rails, which is very expensive and stops the terminal operating in the meantime. The auto-strads are not specially more expensive than similar straddle-carriers with drivers’ cabins.A limitation for now is that the IT to run the auto-strad system, developed by Patrick’s with the University of Sydney, is proprietary. The intellectual property in the IT has now been licensed by Patrick to a Finnish company, Kalmar Global, and within a few years will be available to other operators.

Sluggish trade figures and the overhang of investments planned before 2008 will apply pressure, and are likely to incite attacks by bosses on port workers’ conditions in ports with all degrees of automation.However, in many ways port workers’ strategic position in economic life is stronger in today’s era of high mechanisation and “just in time” than in the days of mass manual labour in ports.

So long as port workers are well-organised, they will also be well-placed to resist those attacks.The ports before containerisation should not be romanticised. Before the 1960s “only in Rotterdam and Hamburg, where semi-casual workers were guaranteed income equal to five shifts per week in 1948, could most dockers look forward to earning steady incomes”.

British dock workers were guaranteed a fallback wage under the National Dock Labour Scheme, but a very small one, a bit over £3 per week when the average wage was almost £20 per week. Into the 1970s, Boston dock workers worked an average of one and a half days a week; New Orleans workers, two days a week.In 1900, dockers were killed by cargo-handling injuries in London at the rate of one a week. No-one went more than a couple of years without substantial injury. Dockers suffered illnesses from unsafe cargoes: sulphur, phosphorus, asbestos… In the broad historical overview, the mechanisation of ports has made it easier, not harder, for port workers to get stable jobs rather than the casual work which was the norm in ports for centuries.

The European Transport Workers’ Federation reports that “since the 1990s, when many EU countries have started liberalising and/or privatising their ports... attempts to dismantle port labour schemes (often referred to as ‘labour pools’)... casualisation has come back”; but at the Patrick’s terminal in Brisbane, for example, all workers are permanent salaried employees.ProgressNo union is under a moral obligation to facilitate capitalist automations in the name of general progress. Yet the experience with all technological revolutions is that workers and unions do better to fight for influence and control over the terms of their introduction than simply to oppose or try to delay them.

As Marx wrote: “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used”.

From the replacement of hand-loom weaving by power looms through to today, technological change can be modified, but it cannot be halted. From a long-term working-class point of view, we do not want to halt it: the possibilities of producing plenty with short working weeks which capitalist technology brings are a necessary foundation for building a socialist society where the technology has been brought under workers’ control and everyone can live well without anyone being crushed by toil.

Automations should not be regarded as a challenge which union organisation is unable to meet. If a crane driver is in an office with other workers, that is not obviously worse for building solidarity than if he or she is in a little cabin far above other workers. If the work of moving goods is redistributed, and has a higher proportion of IT and maintenance labour, it can still be organised.

Unions like the ILWU on the West Coast of the USA, and the WWF in Australia, which saw containerisation coming and quickly set about negotiating terms, suffered setbacks, but they did better than others. In 1969, Sydney was the fourth biggest container port in the world, and Melbourne the eighth biggest. In Britain, the TGWU had essentially no strategy. Its leaders achieved only better voluntary redundancy money; rank and file resistance in some ports delayed containerisation, but mostly resulted only in the work moving to new developments in Felixstowe and Southampton.

In January 2016 dock workers struck in three terminals at Rotterdam, over a threat to jobs from new fully-automated terminals opening in the next few years. They estimated 800 out of 3700 jobs in the terminals were at risk. The dispute ended in July 2016 with a deal which provides job security until 2020 for existing workers, including workers employed by a labour-pool firm for the terminals which is folding, and allows workers over 60 to work 60% hours for 90% pay, but effectively concedes that union strength will gradually decline.The latest five-year deal between the union (the ILWU) and the port bosses on the US West Coast repeats the shortcomings of the first Mechanisation and Modernisation Agreement in 1960.

Even a conservative historian writes: “[ILWU leader] Bridges drastically underestimated the speed with which containers would alter work on the waterfront, and demanded far too little for his members as a result”. In 1960 the MMA gained employment security for “core” workers who were registered union members (“A” men), but at the expense of job control and of the wiping-out of the jobs of the “B” men and the casuals. The latest deal is on similar lines: pay and benefits increases for the existing workforce in exchange for a dwindling degree of control over the labour process and a reduced workforce in the future.It is wise to try to negotiate conditions in advance over automations, rather than waiting for them to come and then going into defensive, reactive, panic mode.

Key aims can include: job security, with provision for retraining and redeployment, of the existing workforce; decasualisation; consultation with the union over every technological innovation; union agreements covering manual work on the wharves (lashing and unlashing), and also other port and hinterland work including IT, security, maintenance, commissioning of equipment, and logistics-hub work; shorter work weeks, better breaks, and the right for workers to have breaks at common times.

Fighting over work breaks is important. The major plus of automation for the bosses is not just that it makes operations faster, or even reduces worker counts, but that it allows consistent, continuous, operation, without breaks for accidents, crane-driver change-overs, etc. At the DP World terminal in Brisbane, workers now never have a break all together, and that has made union organisation more difficult.

At the more automated Patrick’s terminal next door, the union has saved the right to a common break.StrategicThe change in technology since the 1960s and 70s has made some of the new logistics hubs into economic nodes scarcely less strategic than the ports. These are not a few warehouses sited wherever industrial land is cheap, and easily substitutable by similar warehouses on another piece of cheap land: they are big industrial complexes, with big fixed investments.

The developers of London Gateway claim that when the terminal and the logistics hub are in full swing, they will employ 36,000 workers.The best way for port workers to defend their conditions is to make their existing strength a base for efforts to spread union organisation, and win comprehensive agreements, among all workers in the ports (IT staff, security guards, etc. included) and the thousands of other workers who are now in closely-linked jobs around ports. Those agreements should also allow for re-training of workers. That activity will require coordination between different unions; dwindling rates of unionisation across industry should give unions the necessary sense of urgency about overcoming secondary conflicts.And in that way port workers can not only win a better working life for themselves, but use their great strategic strength to help win a better society and a better life for all workers.

* This is a revised and abridged version of an article previously published by the Maritime Union of Australia Queensland Branch News and by the International Dockworkers’ Council.