On Friday, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced a tentative agreement on a new five-year contract covering workers at all 29 West Coast ports. This announcement comes after months of labor negotiations and West Coast port congestion that has caused widespread shipment delays felt across the nation and across industries.
My colleague Chris and I have included ongoing updates on the gridlock in our Friday news posts. This past Friday I referenced a Gizmodo article that included some truly remarkable photos of the congestion at the Ports of LA and Long Beach. This got me thinking about the longer-term prospects for the stakeholders of the West Coast ports. I have a personal interest in economics and business strategy; so I almost automatically look at the dynamics of these situations from the perspective of Porter’s Five Competitive Forces.
Existing Competition Among Ports
I consider the West Coast ports to be one entity in this situation, since the ILWU is established along the entire coast. Therefore, other ports outside of ILWU territory can be considered alternatives, or “competitors.” I found it interesting that the ILWU chose to disaffiliate itself from the AFL-CIO (since the International Longshoremen’s Association is affiliated) back in 2013, as I always thought that “strength in numbers” was a key tenet to collective bargaining. Anyway, it is clear from the press and from statistics that a notable amount of shipments are being diverted away from the West Coast ports to more reliable alternatives such as Gulf and East Coast ports. (In fact, The Panama Canal has been another beneficiary of these ship diversions because the ships coming through have a greater number of loaded containers, generating greater fees for the canal operators.) There is evidence that discretionary West Coast cargo has been getting diverted for some time. A PMA annual report states that East Coast and Gulf ports have gained market share at the expense of the West Coast. And they point to reliability concerns after the 2002 coast-wide port shutdown as the likely cause. With the Panama Canal expansion, the Gulf and East Coast ports will become an increasingly viable alternative for the West Coast going forward.
The diversion of shipments to alternative ports is driven by the importers’ desire to receive the goods in a timely manner and on a reliable basis. Diversion causes an increase in shipping distance and cost. But at this time diversion is providing time and reliability advantages. Importers are likely to continue to shy away from the West Coast until they obtain sufficient confidence in the reliability of the ports.
Threat of Substitutes to Labor
Aside from the reduction in work caused by diverted shipments, the ports are becoming increasingly automated due to general modernization, capacity constraints, and the increased use of containers that lend themselves to standardized processes. In 2013, when the ILWU disassociated with the AFL-CIO, the Seattle Times referenced a letter from the ILWU president stating that they faced the “challenge of the ports soon being run by robotics and computer-operated machinery over the next five to ten years.” This is likely to be true, as the ports need to stay competitive and increase throughput. But I also think that while some jobs will be replaced by automation, others will be created to support the new technology and processes in use.
Technology is currently being deployed across the West Coast ports. The recent TracPac container terminal at the Port of LA is the West Coast’s first to be completed terminal automation project, according to PMA. It is a $510 million upgrade that is composed of 10 projects and includes the construction of an automated intermodal container transfer facility and equips each terminal with on-dock rail. West Coast terminals are reportedly also considering the deployment of additional automation including automated guided vehicles and automated stacking cranes. An example of the use of AGVs in terminals is APM Terminals new facility in Rotterdam that will use battery-driven lift AGVs for container transport within the yard and eight STS cranes that will be controlled remotely.
So the shipping lines are being pressured by volumes and economies of scale; the West Coast port operators are being pressured by the alternatives being created by the Panama Canal and alternative ports; and the ILWU is being pressured by the port operators. It sounds to me like competitive forces are alive and well on the Pacific.