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California dockworkers are worried about losing their good-paying jobs to robots

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Up and down the West Coast, there's a fight to keep high-paying union jobs from going to robots. On one side, 22,000 dockworkers who play a critical role in the global supply chain, moving cargo off of ships onto trucks and trains - on the other, the shipping companies that say they need to automate more of that work in order to stay competitive. The two sides have been in contract negotiations since May, but the struggle dates back decades. Here's NPR's Andrea Hsu.

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ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I've come to Southern California, to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where 40% of imports in containers enters the U.S. Think clothes, computers, car parts. It's a vast landscape of ships, cranes and those colorful steel containers stacked high and wide for miles. And everywhere, trucks hauling those containers out to warehouses and beyond. A year ago, this was the site of a massive logjam. The country had gone on a pandemic buying spree that led to too many ships, too many containers, nowhere to move anything.

The shipping industry, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, says more automation is key to avoiding a repeat. The dockworkers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, say robots aren't the answer. They'll only kill American jobs. It's a major sticking point. With contract negotiations ongoing, the two sides have agreed to no disruptions to the work. Also, no commenting on the talks. But dockworkers will tell you they're worried about the future.

JIMMY MONTI: People are absolutely afraid.

HSU: Jimmy Monti, a crane operator, has never worked at an automated terminal. But he's seen the changes that automation has brought to other parts of this port complex. He points to a ship waiting to be unloaded. In a traditional operation, he says you'd have a minimum of 16 truck drivers waiting to receive containers off the ship, and four top handlers - or forklift operators - stacking the containers on the dock.

MONTI: Those jobs would all be gone. They're all gone on automated terminals.

HSU: Replaced by driverless vehicles and automated stacking cranes. So far, only a few terminals at LA and Long Beach have automated. It's an extremely costly move. Still, increasingly, the question appears to be not if more terminals will bring in new technology, but when and how union workers will fare in the end. It's a dynamic that's existed in some form since the 1960s, when shipping containers revolutionized the industry. Until then, cargo crossed the ocean in sacks and crates and barrels. Longshoremen worked in the holds of ships, using hooks to move goods to shore.

JAMES SPINOSA: Long hours. Hard work. Everything done by hand.

HSU: James Spinosa arrived at the tail end of that era. He watched as gangs of longshoremen were replaced by cranes that could lift whole containers of goods at once. The union had foreseen the threat to jobs and negotiated a controversial agreement allowing for some mechanization of the work. At the heart of it was this philosophy.

SPINOSA: We would go along with mechanization, providing that mechanization took us along.

HSU: Meaning, there was something in it for the workers - above all, job protection. In 1989 came another turning point. Spinoza, then a rising union leader, traveled to Rotterdam to see a new type of crane that operated without a driver.

SPINOSA: And would pick up the container and put it onto that chassis. And then we watched it track through the yard and come back to the pile.

HSU: It was amazing and alarming. His mind immediately went to the jobs that would be lost, as well as those that could be gained.

SPINOSA: Maintenance and repair of all this equipment, because that's replacing our traditional work. You don't see a longshoreman in here. You can't find them.

HSU: Later, Spinoza wandered into a room that was not part of the tour.

SPINOSA: The door was open, so I went in. And, lo and behold, here was about six or eight people on computers.

HSU: Interfacing with that automated equipment. It was an a-ha moment. If cargo was being moved on the docks, union workers had to be on it, no matter the technology. Fast-forward to today, union workers at LA and Long Beach are still operating cranes and driving trucks at most of the terminals. But some have moved to new jobs, like automation coordinator.

REBECCA SCHLARB: For me, it's bittersweet.

HSU: Rebecca Schlarb, a longtime Marine clerk, now sits in front of six screens overseeing the driverless technologies and troubleshooting problems, which she says are frequent.

SCHLARB: I'm a little bit of a geek, so I like the actual work. But the amount of jobs that have been lost for both clerks and longshoremen has been so substantial. And that's just a very scary prospect.

HSU: Schlarb says some of her union brothers and sisters have turned down the work at the automated terminals. They don't want anything to do with it. Jimmy Monti, the crane operator, says the fear is pervasive.

MONTI: Every time there's a rumor about a new terminal even contemplating automation, people are scared.

HSU: Scared that jobs on the waterfront could vanish. This is some of the best paid blue-collar work in America. Union dockworkers can earn over $100,000 a year. And those with years of experience double that. They get free health care. Without the jobs, Monti fears the surrounding communities will wither away.

MONTI: Look at other places in the United States, like Flint, Mich., Detroit, Mich., Youngstown, Ohio. Those economies, just completely disrupted.

HSU: Meanwhile, the pressure is on. LA and Long Beach are rated among the least efficient ports in the world. More modern ports in the Middle East and China get ships in and out much faster with 24/7 operations. The Pacific Maritime Association says more automation will allow LA and Long Beach to handle ever growing cargo volumes. In a video statement, CEO Jim McKenna described it as a win-win, more work all around.

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JIM MCKENNA: We have seen through experience that automated terminals were the most effective in handling historic volumes while also expanding work opportunities for ILW members.

HSU: But union members are skeptical. Even if there are efficiencies to be had, they ask, who's really benefiting? Container shipping is dominated by foreign-owned companies like Maersk, Evergreen and China Ocean Shipping. Yvette Bjazevic, who's driven trucks and cranes and now works in the union dispatch hall, warns that Americans will lose out completely if union jobs are outsourced to robots.

YVETTE BJAZEVIC: These machines don't contribute to taxes. They don't contribute to the local economy. I think everyone should be a little outraged.

HSU: In her view, what's at stake is not just a job, but a way of life.

BJAZEVIC: I'm a hard worker. And I'm able to put two kids through college, not worry about a mortgage payment. And my husband's sick. Like, these are the basics. And I'm totally grateful.

HSU: For now, traffic at the ports is flowing. There's plenty of work. And contract negotiations are ongoing, with still much to hammer out.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, San Pedro, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.