Gary Horton | Fatal Attack of the Job Disrupters

Remember the Imperial Walkers from Star Wars? Those giant terrifying mechanical nightmares that looked a whole lot like those giant cargo cranes at the Port of Los Angeles – but killed humanity with laser-zaps instead of Chinese toys and tech? 

Well, reality imitates art, and those giant cargo carriers are turning on their masters and are killing their jobs. Here’s the thing: There’s no stopping them. There’s nowhere to hide when automation attacks. Not for the cargo handler operators currently in the line of fire, and not for the rest of us toiling in jobs vulnerable to “disruption.”

Hidden behind the recent Trumpian headlines of the most credible rape accusation against him ever – as well as his incredibly well-staged crossing at the North Korean border – hidden deep below all this far more sensationalistic stuff, were reports of the battle between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Port of Los Angeles and Maersk Shipping Lines.

Maersk wants to deploy giant autonomous, robotic cargo handling vehicles and cranes in place of those giant things you see now dotting the waterfront of ports in Los Angeles and indeed – all the world. Today, those Imperial Walker wannabes are controlled by unionized operators, very highly paid operators. Indeed, commercial port work is some of the highest-paying “blue collar” work anyway, with salaries well into six figures. 

And perhaps rightfully so, considering the skill and risk involved in maneuvering 20-, 30-, 40-ton shipping containers with precision control.

Today, right before our eyes and those of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, automation meets economics — and the fallout is loss of human jobs. Past ways of life, comfort, meaning, security – all blasted away by robots.

Initially, Mayor Eric Garcetti had approved the request for permits and deployment of the robots. After a substantial union protest, the L.A. City Council overturned Garcetti and voted in favor of the union. But Maersk wasn’t having any of that holding onto the past stuff – and informed the whole of them that their operating agreement allows automation no matter what and they will be moving forward with the switch to robotic crane control over the guys and gals who’ve worked the docks their entire lives.

Another one bites the dust… 

Dockworkers complained that “robots can never take away a human’s job.” They complained that Maersk is “only interested in profits, not in the workers.” Demonstrably, these dock workers were wrong on the first point and exactly right on the second. Maersk, like all large companies, is in it for the money. Employing highly paid union workers is part of that mix only when those workers represent the best of all possible options. When technology provides a cheaper, better, faster, safer alternative, capitalism will require the machines to take over. 

So long, union operators.

It sounds so heartless and – it is. Perhaps some union-haters will relish this angst played out before us. But be careful in your glee, however, because the robot that takes the union job will soon be poised to take others. And yours might be next…

Indeed, while a passing of an era, the plea that “robotic cargo handlers can’t take the place of humans” is pretty thin. Little doubt, dock workers complained about the large cranes that went in, eliminating much manual on- and off-loading. Or when containerized shipping was introduced. Or when diesel-powered equipment replaced horses and beasts of burden. At each point, human jobs were lost, efficiency soared, and the eternal march of progress marched over the top of jobs and into the future.

We’ve long heard that robots are gunning for all our low-wage jobs like burger flipping and the like. That where job head counts are immense and low-skill-level jobs appear especially vulnerable. Folks above burger-flipper status could shrug their shoulders and say, “too bad… not my problem.”

But robotic economics are gunning to disrupt any line of work where it can be economically advantageous over employing people – regardless of wage. Automotive assembly has already been hit and emptied out. Next up? Tax return preparation. Basic legal work. Orthodontics. Big rig truck driving. Various construction trades… and the high-employment-number jobs like taxi and Uber drivers, housekeepers, food preparation… Tens of millions of jobs will be displaced in 20 years.

And incredibly, buried underneath everyday Trump sensationalist headlines was this story, one more chink out of the armor of human employment – workers under siege in an epic war of humanity against robotic machines. The machines won yet again, this time against super high-paying skilled labor jobs.

Maybe you didn’t notice and perhaps you don’t care. But when the machines are done at the docks, they’ll turn their laser eyes toward yours or your kids’ jobs. And when they do, they’ll win again and there will be nowhere to hide.

The future opportunity and roll of human employment now and in the future is of paramount importance to today’s advanced-economy citizens. Everything is changing faster all the time. Are you ready? Are our public policies ready? 

Where will humans find purposeful and meaningful work in the ever-accelerating age of robotic automation?  Shouldn’t this really be on the “front page news” – the thing of serious discussion? What happens when jobs first get scarce and folks run out of money and hope?  

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006.

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