Port Automation is a Dystopia for Dockers


There is a train of thought that imagines new technology has the potential for great job creation. You can go to McDonald’s and to your local grocery store and use automated machines to do a self check- out. But what about the people who did those jobs before?

Now, the bosses can have an employee monitoring six self check- out lanes. That’s pretty good profit maximization, 6 for 1. I haven’t seen a full- service gas station in a while. The local gas stations used to have a minimum of two people. Now they are down to one. This is a trend in many industries, including mine, the stevedore and long-shore industry. There are longshoreman locals in Canada that once had 3,500 members loading/unloading conventional vessels by manual labour. In the 1960’s, as containerization/mechanization brought technological change, these locals declined in membership – to 150–200 members each today.

There are fully automated terminals in three places in the world right now. The employers’ group on the west coast (Pacific Maritime Association) is trying to push through a job killing contract extension with the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU). While on the east coast, the employers’ group, the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX), is pushing the automation envelope as well.

As recently as a few weeks before Christmas, International Longshoreman Association (I.L.A.) President Harold Daggett broke off talks with the employer group on a new collective agreement. The bosses want fully automated terminals which can run with two or three employees, while the union favours semi-automated terminals that have automated features but are operated by dock workers. President Daggett has viewed automation as the main issue in current contract talks.

Of the three fully automated ports, not one has the same productivity as those operated by workers. The bosses like automation because they don’t have to deal with workers, unions, and safety issues.

Labour is a source of value – the wealth produced by workers. Corporations want to produce profit as the number one goal. Some of those corporations pushing for automation want public subsidies and public investment. It is bad enough that members of the 1% control 51% of the world’s wealth, but they want your tax dollars to make themselves wealthier and to destroy good, decent-paying jobs in the process.

Also, 22% of working people are working poor. Social security belongs to the workers, not to the bosses. What is happening to the Panama and Paradise Papers bandits?

What are the regulators and Canada’s federal government going to do to protect good jobs on the docks? Where is the social contract with the employer to make sure that workers aren’t dumped and replaced by machines that don’t pay taxes like the people exposed by the Paradise and Panama Papers?

How do we secure core working class values like universal health care (including Pharmacare), public education, public transit, public mail service, and postal banking? Casualized, outsourced, contracted-out, precarious work in the transportation industry will not help our people, especially our country’s workers. The way to achieve a truly realistic prosperity is through uncompromising revolutionary change and by exerting workers’ power for creative and socially productive work in a world of ecological sustainability and genuine equality. Let’s take a page from the Transitional Program, a set of demands formulated by Leon Trotsky in 1938, which includes the call for shorter work time without loss of pay or benefits, to share the available jobs along with the boon of rising productivity that comes from tech change.

In the late 19th century, Friedrich Engels called the London Dockers’ Strike the greatest promise he had witnessed in the fight for the working class. Harold Daggett and the I.L.A. have shown the greatest promise in the current fight for the dignity of the working class against the dystopia of capitalist automation. When the dockers get organized and win, all other sections will follow.

* Chris Gosse is President of the International Longshoreman’s union Local in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, and was the Socialist Caucus candidate for NDP Vice-President – Labour.