Below is a brief summary of a conference on automation that the author attended.
By Joel Schor
Member, Sailors Union of the Pacific S.U.P.
Casual working under the contract of: International Longshore and Warehouse Union ILWU- Local 10.
The unions basically had the position most of us would, that the primary issue is not whether automation will happen or not but who will control it in the workplace and beyond that, how will a fight be initiated for a shorter work day/week to create more work for all?
A speaker who came later in the day was somewhat interesting in tying the development of automation to the increase of fixed long term costs ( machinery) over variable costs (mostly labor ) in this industry as leading to the declining overall rate of profit.
The particular speaker, a professor from Lisbon Portugal who had apparently studied maritime labor relations the world over, was very focused on what she termed "the advanced core nations of the world" as opposed to the "peripheral nations". What was missing from her analysis as well as most of the union leaders who spoke from the Maritime Union of Australia and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the West Coast of America, is the phenomena of China. Is it a "developed" country or a "developing" country?
The professor emphasized that automation only or mainly occurs in the "core" countries where wages are high and automation makes the long-term costs of expensive machinery worthwhile. Why then is the most advanced automated facility in the world in China ahead of Europe and the United States? It could be argued that wages in China are relatively high in certain key industrial sectors, but from what I understand the conditions and wages of the Chinese stevedores lags behind most of the countries where unions have been around longer.
Chinese stevedores work in excess of 12-hour shifts with no extra pay; they sleep and eat in the ports where they work. I can see that much has improved for them in having been there over a 12-year period on ships from 2002 to 2012. In that period China took on on economies of great scale and it continues to seek to capture and control markets. Chinese companies including the state subsidized shipping conglomerate Cosco spent over $20 billion last year up to June investing in and buying up European ports. (Financial Times 7-17-17)
In the last period of China's rapid export growth, that country’s share of world exports was large enough to make economies of great scale possible for their enterprises. There is much more that could be discussed about this. *
As far as the union leadership is concerned, ignoring the fact of China's rapid growth by conquering markets gives a false message to the rank and file. We had presentations from the Maritime Union of Australia talking about partially automated ports where the workforce has been cut down in container terminal operations. There has also been much discussion about a port on the US West Coast in Longbeach which will be fully automated and operational in 2020.
The fact is, China is fully automated and operating now. The emphasis on ports in Europe and America where this imminent reality of full scale automation has not manifested itself as it has in China, creates a vague hope for the workers to fight against the threats to their jobs and security. The reality is much more imminent than what is being presented to them by the leadership. Perhaps the union leaders don't even know or want to know about this, or possibly they have some other plan which remains to be seen at this point.
* We have a small workers “Think Tank” and we discuss world events and different issues weekly in conference calls. If the reader is interested in the issue above (or others) and would like to participate in a discussion let us know by e mail at: email@example.com With regard to this issue, there are other related issues around government ownership and control which we should explore as well.