Luddites Were Wrong–But So were We

The Luddites took matters into their own hands when they saw that machines were destroying their jobs. They smashed the machines!


The argument in favor of new production equipment has always been that it brings down prices as it increases the total amount of wealth. The argument against it is that it doesn’t benefit the workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps figures on productivity — the amount of wealth that one worker creates in an hour — and it’s incredible how much it has changed. They publish annual or quarterly changes in productivity, but one can use a spreadsheet to show the cumulative effect. From World War II to present, one worker makes more than four times as much as he/she did in an hour!

We didn’t get four times as much in wages and benefits. Instead, we suffered loss of jobs and diminishing power in the workplace as organized labor rolls dropped by two-thirds during the same period.

We have a fighting program against outsourcing, which also takes away our jobs, but American workers seem helpless against automation.

It Wasn’t Always That Way

The American labor movement used to have the correct answer to automation. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was a fighting organization (1938-1947) they demanded “30 for 40 with no cut in pay” in virtually every contract fight. It means that they wanted to work thirty hours for forty hours’ pay. Not long after labor took its wrong turn in 1947, they gave up the demand for shorter hours. It’s hardly ever heard of today.

One thing that CIO militants did win was cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA) in contracts. As the government’s measure of inflation went up, union wages were adjusted upward. The formula used was never quite fair, but the general idea was very good. They used to call COLA an “escalator clause.”

Why No COPA?

Union negotiators could have demanded a cost-of-productivity-adjustment. Instead of higher wages, it should have given us shorter hours. If a person doubles their productivity, then, they should only have to work half as long! If we had done that successfully, we wouldn’t have lost a tremendous number of union jobs. Our unions would be just as big, and have just as much political clout, as they had in 1947!

Why didn’t they? Why don’t they now? That’s kind of a mystery.

–Gene Lantz

I’m still on the “Workers Beat” radio talk show, 89.3FM in Dallas and KNON.ORG everywhere. If you want to know what I really think, click here.


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