“New economic patterning through automation and relocation of plants is dissolving the nation’s basic industries. We are neither technologically advanced nor socially enlightened as a nation if we witness this disaster for tens of thousands without finding a solution. And by a solution I mean a real and genuine alternative providing the same living standards and opportunities which were swept away by a force called progress but which for many is destruction.” Martin Luther King.
Dr. King spoke these words to the Union of Autoworkers convention back in 1961. With many observers citing the discontent among blue collar workers in the Rust Belt States as a major factor in the 2016 election that carried Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, the fallout of automation is having serious negative political repercussions. Despite the spotlight on globalization as the culprit, one estimate has job losses from automation at eight times greater than from outsourcing. With a whole new wave of cognitive technology advances coming soon that could negatively affect almost half of American workers, it’s time people really examined whether this constitutes progress or destruction.
Tech change is framed as going hand in hand with progress, and thus as inevitable. We are told there is no alternative to progress except stagnation, or worse, regression to a new Dark Age. Often too the issue is mistakenly termed “machines vs. humans’ as if these machines, and not the corporate elite, were in charge of bankrolling the research, development and rollout of these technologies. For the most part technology is simply a tool. It can, and it has, brought many benefits to human society. However what we need is a thorough examination of both the positive and negative effects of technological change on our society and a democratic body that can regulate the introduction of these changes.
I worked for Canada Post starting in 1971 before automation was introduced in the Post Office. As a postal clerk in the ‘Forward’ section I had to memorize every post office in B.C. and most major ones across Canada. Postal workers had to pass a sortation test. Contrary to the impression management tried to promote, postal clerks were relatively skilled and were not easily replaced. In 1972 the Post Office introduced the postal code and a program of mechanization of mail sortation. The idea was to simplify the work so that anyone off the street who could read would be able to machine code. One of the first things management did that made clear their intentions was to create a new classification of ‘coder’ which was paid considerably less than what a sorter received. After a wildcat strike and following an arbitration, management had to retreat from that position.
The Union’s response back in 1973 was to initiate a ‘Boycott the Postal Code’ asking the public to not use the code thus the mail would still have to be sorted manually. We also made a priority to negotiate protections under our collective agreement. In 1975 we achieved a breakthrough. The new Article 29 stated the Post Office had to hold meaningful consultations on any planned introduction of new technology and had to eliminate any ‘adverse effects’. CUPW was not opposed to tech change but postal workers wanted to share in any benefits accrued and also to have a voice over how and when it was introduced.
Mechanization, automation and tech change have become ubiquitous. Self-driving trucks, automated fast food joints, medical diagnosis: you name it, almost all human work can and will be replaced by robots and AI over the next 20-30 years. Between 2000 and 2010 the US lost 5.6 million manufacturing jobs. The Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University states 85% of those losses were due to automation. A number of studies in both Canada and the U.S. warn that as many as 45% of present jobs could be replaced or adversely effected by automation.
Why are our governments not having boards of enquiry to examine the issue and propose various options for citizens to debate and discuss? There are certainly plenty of academic studies. Stephen Hawkings and others have warned about the possible effects of AI and are calling for a public policy debate to be held globally.
The main reason why there isn’t more attention paid to tech change is found in the same line of reasoning that Naomi Klein pointed out in ‘This Changes Everything’ about climate change. At the same time as this new Technological Revolution has been going on, the reigning ideology is of unfettered corporate capitalism, which demands that the market is the great arbitrator of what technology is introduced, and how it is implemented. The fact that the global elites are the main benefactors of this technology is seemingly beside the point.
One of the problems is that most people who examine the question of labor and automation look at it from a purely economic viewpoint, that is automation and robotics, after capital costs are amortized, are much cheaper than human labor. Of course robots don’t have mortgages or families to feed either. However an equally important factor for corporations and their managers is control: control of the process and control of the workers.
“Machinery comes into the world not as a servant of “humanity” but as an instrument of those to whom the accumulation of capital gives the ownership of the machines. Thus in addition to its technical function of increasing productivity of labor which would be a mark of machinery under any social system, machinery also has, in the capitalist system, the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor” Harry Braverman from ‘Labor and Monopoly Capital.’
One of the main motivations for automation is to replace humans with machines is not just cost cutting but control. As postal workers back in the ‘70s we knew this. Humans get sick, become pregnant, need bathroom breaks, question orders and worst of all join unions. Robots do none of those things.
Braverman continues “In this setting the development of technology takes a form of a headlong rush in which social effects are largely disregarded, priorities are set only by the criteria of profitability, and the equitable spread, reasonable assimilation, and selective appropriation of the fruits of science, considered from the social point of view, remain the vision of helpless idealists.”
As a ‘helpless idealist’ I think if we do not want to end up in a dystopian future where work and workers are redundant, we need to take control of this revolution and soon.