Bad/Good Automation?

Yesterday, I met with a futurist researcher named Mike Courtney. He wanted to interview me, he said, for a paper he’s writing on “unions and automation.”

I gave Courtney fair warning. I told him that my views don’t represent anybody but me, but I have AN AWFUL LOT of opinions.


This futurist said that some automation is apparently “good,” but some of it is also “bad.” He wanted to try to find the line distinguishing “good” from “bad” automation. He figured a union man’s opinion would assist.

I told him that unions usually oppose automation, but we’re wrong when we do. As far as I can tell, unions either do nothing about automation or they try to negotiate with corporations to ease the pain when automation is inevitable. Good examples, I told him, were probably the Mine Workers and the Dock Workers on the Pacific Coast. I understand that both of them were decimated by automation, but not until after they had negotiated as good a deal as they thought possible. In my own local union, our Negotiating Committee Chairman once set up a “New Technology Committee” to try to advise negotiators what to do about automation. I consider that just about as good as any union does nowadays. At least they tried.

I could have told him that the machines I started running in 1978 replaced 16 conventional machines and, thus, 15 jobs. The machines that eventually replaced mine, as I retired, each replaced six of the ones I ran. Five more jobs lost to automation.

I did tell him what I did as an accountant. This was back before IBM introduced their 360 mainframe to take over jobs. I started a process of bill-paying that was all computerized. The machine compared what we thought we should pay with what the vendor was requesting. If they agreed, the bill was paid as soon as it was due. If they didn’t agree, then the accountant had to reconcile them and stick reconciliation data, positive or negative numbers, back into the machine. The machine just compared two sets of data and kicked out the ones needing reconciliation. I guess I would have seen the Accounting Department decimated if I hadn’t gotten bored and quit.

I think that Futurist Courtney was a little bit surprised when I insisted that unions were wrong to oppose automation. After all, I said, automation does what capitalism does best — lowering the unit price of the products we need or want.

The only problem with automation is how its benefit is allocated. Right now, all the benefit accrues to the capitalist in charge. Workers get nothing but layoff notices or, if they are lucky, they get to stay at work and do something even more mindless and boring than what they had before.

The automation genius of today is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. He has tens of thousands of employees worldwide. They do pitifully repetitious tasks and get paid very little. Besos, last I heard, makes $215,000,000 a day!

The solution to the problems that automation causes is not to oppose it. The solution is to grab some of the benefit. The way to do that is to shorten the working day every time productivity goes up. It’s the amount of wealth that an average worker produces in an average hour. Productivity is a statistic that the Bureau of Statistics gives out, I think, every quarter. It’s often around 2%.

Productivity aggregates, like a saving account aggregates. If you put the quarterly increases into a spreadsheet, you would see that an American worker today makes more than 4 times as much wealth in an hour than he/she did at the end of World War II. If the unions had known what they were doing, they would have demanded cuts in the working day so that they wouldn’t have lost 70% of their members, as they did.

The worst part about it, I told the futurist, is that union leaders figured this out long ago. From 1937 to 1947, the heyday of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) they demanded “30 for 40 with no cut in pay” every time they negotiated a contract. It meant that workers should work only 30 hours a week but continue to get paid the same that they made in 40 hours.

My own CIO union, the Auto Workers, had resolutions for “30 for 40” in every convention up to 1957. Then it disappeared. If you asked union leaders today about cutting working hours, I don’t think they would know what you are talking about.

My friend Tom Berry knows. He does a forum in North Dallas every Saturday evening. And every Saturday evening he gets up and says that Americans should demand a 6-hour day. It works out mathematically, you see: instead of 3 8-hour shifts we would have 4 6-hour shifts. Unions would be bigger and periodic unemployment would be less of a problem.

There are other advantages, too. Some researchers think that shortening the working day, completely by itself and for no other reason, would increase hourly productivity. People would just do their jobs better.

Another advantage might be that people with more leisure time might create even better ways to improve our quality of life.

Historically, the fight for shorter hours defined our worldwide labor movement. Getting the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935 was the best thing we ever did. It said that employers had to pay their blue-collar workers overtime if they worked us more than 40 hours in a week. That’s all it said, but it was great.

But shortening the working hours has passed completely out of our collective consciousness. Most of the workers in my union don’t even want shorter hours. They grab up all the overtime they can get, just to pay their bills. A major social change like shorter working hours just doesn’t seem real to them, and that’s the union’s fault. Automation is killing American labor, and we have no program to deal with it.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON Radio’s “Workers Beat” talk show at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. The podcast it on knon.org. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site.

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