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Port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands EschCollection Getty Images

As Robots Muscle In, Rotterdam’s Dockworkers Vote to Strike

Dec 21, 2015

Dockworkers in Rotterdam voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract offer from port employers on Sunday and threatened to three-day strikes in January and February unless they get a better deal.

At the heart of the dispute is an aggressive automation program that has arguably made Rotterdam the most technologically advanced port in the world. But the union estimates that the push will lead to the elimination of nearly 20% of jobs at the port within two years.

Yesterday’s vote is just the latest chapter in negotiations that have been ongoing for months. Dockworkers’ unions have demanded a layoff freeze for nine years. Port operators, including Europe Container Terminals, APM Terminals, and Rotterdam World Gateway, have called that “not realistic,” offering 4.5 years instead.

The dockworkers union, FNV Havens, says employers have until Jan. 6 to make a better offer to avoid the strike.

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Rotterdam is one of the world’s largest ports, and a primary gateway for goods arriving in Europe, particularly from Asia. A shutdown could have a significant economic impact, much as last year’s slowdown along the West Coast impacted the U.S.

The port’s preparation for automation stretches back to the 1990s, but construction on the automation-centric port extension known as Maasvlakte 2 began in earnest in 2008. The first ship arrived at APM Terminals’ fully-automated facility in December of 2014, and the official opening was April 24 of this year. APM’s construction cost was reported at 500 million euros.

The automation at APM's new terminal is extensive, encompassing not just the container tracking system and the cranes that load and unload ships, but the vehicles that deliver containers from dockside to trucks and trains headed inland. Those systems replace highly skilled human workers who are also often highly paid. Wages for U.S. longshoremen average nearly $150,000 a year.

Human crane operators at the Port of Charleston, for instance, load or unload up to 40 containers per hour by swinging and lifting 10 to 40 ton boxes with a kinetic precision that evokes a giant sinking three-point shots with boulders. Speed, though, depends not just on the honed dexterity of the crane operators, but a ballet-like coordination between the crane and the trucks arriving to receive each box. Large and small hitches are almost inevitable, as trucks arrive a little late or a crane picks up the wrong box.

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Automated cranes and trucks don’t necessarily move faster than humans, but they minimize those missed connections systemwide. Before opening, the director of APM’s terminal said that automation would allow Rotterdam to beat other European ports’ move rates—the number of containers handled—by up to 50%. That’s thanks not just to tighter coordination, but the ability to more easily run multiple shifts—and fewer worries about labor disruption.

Other ports in Europe are pursuing similar automation, but American ports have lagged significantly. That’s thanks in part to union power, and in part to competition for funds from other capital needs, most notably East Coast ports’ push to deepen harbors in advance of the opening of the expanded Panama Canal.

Even given huge efficiency gains, widespread port automation isn’t inevitable. This years’ sluggish growth in global ocean freight has hurt shipowners that have invested heavily to expand, suggesting that returns on big capital projects by ports aren’t guaranteed.

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