A Workerless Warehouse?

June 20, 2008: Last November, Ralphs grocery announced plans to open an automated center in Paramount, Calif. by 2010.

Ralphs warned they might move Teamster work away from their existing facilities, saying: “Automated capability does improve efficiencies and requires less labor.”

The new facility will be built and operated by Witron, a European firm that is already launching other automated facilities in the U.S. and Europe.

Of course, these new automated warehouses cannot totally replace humans with machines. But they do automate many traditional warehouse jobs.

Here’s how selection works in one of the new facilities: Cases are kept on small metal trays, each tagged with a barcode. When an order is being picked, an overhead crane picks up the trays and moves them onto a conveyor belt.

From there, the cases go to a Case Order Machine (COM), which sorts the cases, decides the order to stack them, and puts them on a pallet.

A typical Witron COM can handle 550 cases in an hour, and build a new pallet every eight minutes. A typical Witron facility has 16 COMs putting out over 120 pallets an hour.

Workers still load and unload pallets from trailers. And about five percent of all goods cannot be handled by the system—requiring manual selection.

A Slow Change

Most Teamster warehouse jobs aren’t in danger yet. The switch to automated warehousing will be slow, because the new technology is still very expensive.

But there’s one thing we can be sure of: employers will keep trying to use new technology to reduce the number of Teamsters on the payroll.

Already many of the largest warehousers are rolling out massive new automated facilities.

A Union Plan

Our union has the right to bargain over how new technology will affect our jobs—and we need to use it. When automated warehousing threatened jobs in Minnesota Local 120, the local began a training program to educate stewards and members about the new facilities.

They also bargained to get job training for warehouse Teamsters to fix and maintain the complicated machinery in new facilities.

We need more of this approach: a driver training program would help displaced Teamster warehousemen find new Teamster jobs.

Our union needs a national strategy to deal with new technology at the bargaining table.

We also need more organizing. The new facilities still require people to unload the trailers. Nonunion lumpers have taken over many jobs that used to be Teamster. The International has started a program to organize those jobs.

That still leaves the hundred of thousands of nonunion workers in warehouses and retail distribution centers. Organizing those workers would give us more power to protect Teamster jobs.

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