Will robots replace port workers? Not yet. California ports celebrate merry Christmas

An undated aerial look at the Port of Los Angeles.
An undated aerial look at the Port of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Port of Los Angeles

Very young children may still believe that on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus and his reindeer-drawn sleigh deliver toys that his elves build in a North Pole workshop.


The logistics of Christmas morning are immensely complex and important to California, which for decades has been the primary portal for the goods that Asia exports in huge quantities to America.

That’s especially true in Southern California, whose twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have become vital economic powerhouses since the virtual collapse of the region’s aerospace industry in the 1990s.

They handle more than 40 percent of the waterborne freight entering the nation, and unloading container ships and transshipping their contents employs as many as 1.6 million Southern Californians. Some work in the ports, but many more in the immense logistical warehouse, trucking and railroad complexes 50 miles to the east in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Southern California’s decision several decades ago to wager its economic future so heavily on international trade may be problematic, particularly since the San Francisco Bay Area’s opting for technology has paid off so handsomely.

However, the die is cast and Southern California needs its ports, and their attendant logical networks, to prosper because its very large immigrant and first-generation populations need blue-collar jobs.

This Christmas appears to be a very merry one for Southern California’s port-related industries.

Eighteen months ago, Panama opened its newly enlarged canal, one that can handle ships carrying up to 14,800 containers, triple the size of previous vessels. There were fears that Southern California’s ports would suffer a loss of Asian trade to East Coast ports.

Shipping data indicate, however, that while East Coast ports are seeing significant increases via the Panama Canal, they appear to be largely diversions from the Suez Canal rather than shifts from Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Both ports have reported strong increases in “20-foot equivalent units” or TEUs, the basic measurement of container traffic, since Panama opened its enlarged canal. Los Angeles, for example, has seen a 6.25 percent increase this year through November compared to the same period of 2016.

One reason the ports have not seen losses is that their leaders saw the peril posed by Panama’s enlargement and invested many millions of dollars in upgrades.

While Panama can now handle ships of up to 14,800 TEUs, there are even bigger vessels, carrying up to 18,000, now being built. One of the first mega-ships, the 20-story-tall CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, berthed at Los Angeles just before Christmas 2016 in a demonstration of the port’s new capability.

It was something of a stunt. The port actually paid the ship’s French owner to make Los Angeles its first West Coast stop.

“It gave us an opportunity to test in real time how we would handle this ship,” port director Gene Seroka told the Daily Breeze, a Torrance-based newspaper. “We gained a level of insight and expertise that we would never have had before.”

The long-term viability of Southern California’s trade sector is still in question. Ship traffic still could shift elsewhere and automation could erase much of its workforce.

Cost-cutting robots are replacing workers in warehouses and handling containers in ports, but full automation faces stiff opposition from dock worker unions – a battle that’s beginning to be waged in the Capitol.

However, for the time being, the sector is a vital generator of jobs.

Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at