Technology of Control

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

Marty Glaberman

Work Transformed:
Automation and Labor in the Computer Age
by Harley Shaiken
New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1986, $17.95

HARLEY SHAIKEN HAS documented, with considerable insight, the impact of the current wave of automation on the workplace. He has done this while maintaining a necessary balance between the plans and aims of management and the resistance of workers.

In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continually revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production and all the social relations.”

This book defines the current stage of that continuing revolution, based on the development of microelectronics. “The transformation is often called computer integrated manufacturing (CIM), or sometimes by the longer title computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM).

“Whatever it’s called, the result is a revolution in the way things are made and the way work is organized. The technical basis for this revolution rests on the information processing capabilities of computers and the ability of microelectronics to bring computer power directly to the point of production whether that happens to be a machine tool or word processor.” (2)

The importance and usefulness of this study is in its documentation of the conscious use of technology to replace workers and to limit, as much as possible, the power of workers who remain. The point is made that, while much of technology is value free and can be applied to contradictory social ends, that is not an absolute. Technology can be developed in ways which are inherently detrimental to workers, whether through loss of jobs, loss of skills, or loss of power over the workplace.

At the same time, Shaiken is aware of the limitations of this current technological revolution. Capitalists are limited in their ability to carry out all of their objectives. They cannot eliminate workers altogether.

Nor can they eliminate entirely workers’ knowledge and their need to depend on that knowledge, particularly when difficulties appear in the process of production. There are also limitations resulting from the vast capital expenditures involved.

Some of the limitations are a consequence of the aim to eliminate, as much as possible, the need for any human input at the point of production. The result is often a system much more complex than is warranted and, therefore, one that is subject to frequent breakdown and malfunctioning.

The reality of the new forms of automation, including robotics, is not uniform. The specific forms of automation and the forms and possibilities of worker resistance vary in different industries, different locations, and so forth. But worker resistance seems to emerge wherever possible and with a continuing expansion of those possibilities.

One of the aspects of the new technology that Shaiken discusses is the so-called world car in the automobile industry and, related to it, the ability of major manufacturers to switch production of parts or of final assembly from one country to another. This has been viewed as making it easier for a company to break strikes at any one of its facilities.

It is important to note, however, that while production may be shifted, transportation of the product cannot be so rapid that it makes up the loss of production at a struck plant. A strike would still have its impact. In addition, the very advances of technology and increases in productivity, and huge investments that these require, make it virtually impossible to build duplicate plants for all the parts of an assembled final product.

In addition, there is the response of the labor movement, slow as it may be. The Detroit Free Press reported on December 2, 1986 that representatives of unions of Ford workers in several European countries “have agreed to work together to improve international solidarity.”

There are other examples of international solidarity, as in the case of tire workers in Europe who joined together to support a strike against one tire producer.

Historical Context

There is a lot to learn in this book, but it would be useful to deal with some of the limitations. The first is the fact that the book has very little in the way of historical context.

Over a hundred years ago Marx wrote that “machinery not only acts as a competitor who gets the better of the workman, and is constantly on the point of making him superfluous. It is also inimical to him, and as such capital proclaims it from the roof tops and as such makes use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital. It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.” (Capital, Progress Publishers edition, Volume 1, 410-41l)

The problem is not to pay allegiance to earlier writers. It is to recognize that the current automation revolution is simply the continuation of a process that is inherent in capitalist society.

“The choices affecting power in the workplace most immediately influence what happens on the job, but they ultimately affect the character of the society itself. A democratic society and an authoritarian technology are incompatible in the long run,” (xiv) This is true, but it is put rather ambiguously.

The sense which comes through here and elsewhere in the book is that there is a democratic society in the United States and western capitalist countries generally, and that this is threatened by the new automation. Lost is the sense that capitalism has always aimed at the most authoritarian technology possible, given working-class struggle, and that political democracy may or may not exist on top of an authoritarian system of production.

If the introduction of “authoritarian technology” is made to appear a rather recent phenomenon, then all that is needed is adequate control and modification of the new technology. But that is exactly what is not possible. Minor modifications can be made through working-class struggle, but the fundamental direction of capitalist production cannot be changed without a social revolution.

Not By Militancy Alone

This leads to a second limitation. If all that is needed is some decent reforms, then it seems reasonable to place one’s entire hope in the official labor movement. Admittedly, some unions haven’t done so well in limiting or controlling technology, but with some well -placed shots of militancy, things will improve. That is quite misleading.

The most militant labor unions in the United States have been most delinquent in protecting workers against technological change. The Auto Workers union has always, as a matter of principle, refused to limit management rights to change the technology of production. There is no sign that they are willing to change that attitude.

Two other examples are illuminating. In the 1950s, John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers, which had the power to refuse it, granted the northern mine operators the right to introduce unlimited mechanization of their mines. The result was the creation of what became known as Appalachia-that vast pocket of poverty-after the number of miners (and union members) fell from 500,000 to 150,000 in two or three years.

Similarly, Harry Bridges and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union granted the waterfront companies the right to automate the docks on the west coast. In order to get that through the union he created a category of second-class membership, with no powers to reverse that decision.

Shaiken seems to place his faith in unions like the International Association of Machinists (IAM), led by a “socialist,” to change the trend. There is an interesting little item that might be relevant. In discussing the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike he says, “Had PATCO been able to generate this kind of active support from other unions in the air transport industry, principally the pilots, the balance of power might have been changed considerably.” (258)

There is a very strange omission here. The pilots are probably the highest paid union members in the country by far, and among the most conservative. It was (and is) much more reasonable to look to the union that controlled the ground employees of the airlines to rally to the support of the air traffic controllers-that very same International Association of Machinists. But the IAM behaved exactly like the pilots.

Source of the Problem?

Shaiken concludes the book with A Technology “Bill of Rights” proposed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The proposals are all very nice. But they seem to assume that the fundamental direction of capitalism established from the beginning of industrialization can be significantly modified by a little union militancy.

And they seem to assume (or at least Shaiken does) that fighting for such a program can transform the labor movement and society at large. One of the elements is, of course, international solidarity among unions and workers. The example I gave earlier of cooperation among Ford unions is important.

But equally important is the support that the AFL-CIO has given to State Department and CIA projects (overt and covert) to destroy the possibility of militant unions in Third World countries — those countries in which the wage differential with American workers matters. It would be wrong to imply that nothing can or should be done, that it is socialism or nothing. But to be able to take serious steps to protect the rights of workers during a technological revolution it is important to know the origins and sources of technological change. And it is also important to know the historical and institutional record of the labor movement.

A union movement that has adopted a program of supporting technological change and concessions to save some of their members’ jobs and that permits locals to bid against each other for jobs is not exactly a first line of defense.

May-June 1987, ATC 0

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