Maersk Automation Plans spark fury in US Ports

Conor Clarke
  • New plans for automation part of pursuit of zero emissions at docks by 2030
  • Unions suggest cleaner technology needn’t mean job losses
  • Tensions may signal what is to come as part of the automation revolution


The world’s largest shipping company Maersk has sparked anger among port workers in US West Coast dock terminals after announcing plans to introduce automated equipment at a number of ports in the region. Workers represented by the International Longshore & Warehouse Union met on the 21st of March to discuss the plans in a display of outrage by employees at the facilities whose jobs are at risk because of the plans by Danish shipping conglomerate, AP Moller-Maersk.

This crisis comes during what has already been a tough year to date for the company. Last month, the company lowered their yearly profit expectations due to the US-China trade war. Tensions between the two countries have reduced the volume of goods moving across the Pacific, affecting both logistics companies like Maersk as well as West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach which handled around a third of US container traffic in 2018.

The recent plans for automation by Maersk come as part of a clean air plan adopted by Long Beach and LA ports in 2017 to reduce pollution, aiming for zero emissions by 2030. California is known for its strict air pollution measures. Over a year after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, the Golden State joined an alliance of 15 other states as well as Puerto Rico, which began independently pursuing the Paris targets.

Maersk predicts that the introduction of new electrified, driverless vehicles. This is not Maersk’s first move towards automation. In 2015, the company opened a fully automated docking terminal, complete with driverless trucks and robotic cranes in Rotterdam. Dock workers and their representative unions, anxious at the spread of new automated technology, argue that the requirement for cleaner technology needn’t come at the expense of lucrative dockside jobs; according to the Pacific Maritime Association, the average southern Californian port worker earned $131,000 in 2017. Almost a decade prior, unions agreed to the introduction of new automated technology in return for increased wages and pensions benefits for members.

Automation has been a hot topic in recent times. Seen to bring widespread benefits to productivity whilst reducing costs and the needs for labour in the supply chain, it comes with one major disadvantage; job losses. The fear of new technology taking jobs away from humans is not a new one but has been reignited in recent years. New technological innovations require less and less human involvement and many fail to see where, even with training, these displaced workers can find new jobs.

Looking at the shipping industry historically, in the 20th century, the development of the shipping container extensively reduced the need for manual labour at docks across the world. While this revolutionary invention cut shipping times drastically and made trade far more seamless, it too caused furore at the time. More recent developments in artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies are seen to pose a more widespread to risk to employment across sectors, being more broadly applicable than the likes of the shipping container.

While it is unclear how tensions between workers and Maersk will be resolved in California, these events may be a forewarning of further struggles to come in the war between man and machine, particularly where peoples’ livelihoods are at stake.

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