The fight against port automation - again

The ILWU union on the US West Coast is fighting the introduction of automated equipment in the APM facility in the port of Los Angeles. (for full story read Lloyds List here )

Much as the port workers in the port of New York fought against containerization itself in the 1970s in order to preserve jobs.

History continues to repeat itself, and I therefore feel compelled to re-use a piece I wrote 2 years ago when the ILA union on the US East Coast was also fighting automation:

Just as the luddites in the early 19th century were fighting automation in the form of machines entering the textile industry as they feared for their jobs, the union is fighting modern-day automation in the container ports.

Have the union learned nothing from the past 200 years of history? The luddites' fight against the first industrial revolution was doomed to fail for the textile workers - just as the modern-day luddites' fight against the fourth industrial revolution will ultimately fail. It is not a matter of "if" but only a matter of "when".

Fighting automation in an attempt to preserve jobs might at the surface appear to be in the interest of the workers whose jobs are at risk - and let's face it: those jobs are indeed at risk. However, when efforts are spent on the wrong fight, you run the risk of losing the more important battle. While the first industrial revolution indeed eliminated a large number of jobs, it also had the effect of creating even more new types of jobs - and this is likely to be the case during this fourth industrial revolution as well.

The true challenge lies elsewhere. Essentially there are two key problems: The automation will eliminate certain jobs, meaning that people will lose jobs in the short term. Longer term new jobs will appear, but as is always the case in transitional periods it is not easy to predict exactly what this might be - just think back 25 years to the early 1990's, where a large number of the current jobdescriptions in the world today were not even invented. Furthermore it takes time before the new jobs can replace the old jobs. Finally - and importantly - the skills required for the new jobs are not necessarily skills the current port workers have, or can even attain.

A pro-active union which wants to safeguard their members' future should therefore focus on the real challenge: The fact that a significant number of the members over time willbecome redundant, and thus the task becomes two-fold: How can they help the members gain new skills matching the new jobs arising - and how can they create a safety net for those members who will not only lose their jobs due to the automation, but who are also not able to attain the skills needed in the new automated environment.

Fighting the tide might seem heroic, even attract support from worried workers, but is ultimately not in the same workers' interests as that removes focus from the challenge that will truly help those same workers: Helping to re-school to new jobs where possible, and helping to generate a safety net for those who are more unfortunate. This creates far fewer "spicy" headlines, but would actually help a lot more.

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