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Reworking The Future

Trade Unions

new internationalist
issue 162 - August 1986

Many industrial processes, such as this chemical plant in West Germany, have been so highly automated that responsibility has passed from worker to computer.
Photo: Charles Seller / Camera Press
Reworking the future
Computerization can both reduce the number of jobs
and promote dull and repetitive work. But it doesn't have to
be like this. As John Tanner explains, there are alternatives
which the trade unions will have to examine if they are
to survive into the twenty-first century.

NEW technology may be dramatically reducing costs - and speeding up communication. But people are losing their jobs: the stock-controller who used to count the goods on the supermarket shelf; the switchboard operator who handled your long-distance call; the factory worker who bolted your car together.

Loss of jobs through new technology is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the US in the 1960s and 1970s when the economy was expanding, many jobs in the old smokestack industries disappeared as more and more processes were mechanized. But these were offset by new work in the high-tech 'sunrise' sectors.

In Western Europe, however, the new technology arrived later - in the 1980s at a time of world recession when those who were replaced by the micro-chip had no option but to join the ranks of the unemployed.

In Britain, for example, there have been massive job losses in almost every sector in recent years: between 1980 and 1982 one job in five disappeared in engineering, the motor vehicle industry and textiles and clothing. Only insurance, banking and finance saw an increase in employment, by just half of one per cent.

This has resulted, say many trade union officials, in a polarization of workers. Now there is a handful of highly skilled - usually white, male - employees who program or control the machines, who are well paid and do interesting and creative work. But alongside these is an even greater number of deskilled, often black and female employees engaged in boring and repetitive work for low wages.

Management did not introduce new technology primarily to put people out of work. Indeed many of the companies who have automated most successfully have actually expanded their workforces. The most pressing aim was usually to cut costs and operate as efficiently as possible. At a time of recession only those who can cut costs to the bone will survive. But new technology has been used in an antagonistic way against workers. Management are using it as a way of imposing greater control. If the machinery can be handled by relatively unskilled labour such workers are very easily replaced and can do little to disrupt production if they wish to protest - even about the computerization itself. As long ago as 1973 the Washington Post introduced computerized typesetting without a union agreement. There was a strike and just 25 managers were able to operate the system, taking over the work of as many as 125 typesetters. By the end of the year management had broken the union, taken away many benefits and made large numbers of highly-skilled print workers redundant.

So what should trade unions do when threats of job losses and de-skilling loom on the horizon? 'It's absolutely futile to try to resist new technology. Like it or lump it, it's going to happen', says John Grant, spokesperson for the Electrical, Electronic Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) in Britain.

The EETPU, many of whose members install and service the micro-technology, has pioneered no-strike, single-union agreements with companies in Britain. In 1983, for example, the union agreed such a deal with a Hitachi television and video manufacturing plant in South Wales where unemployment is high. 'Now they are doing well and taking on staff, said Grant.

'Productive, profitable and competitive employers offer better rewards and more long term security for their workforces than those who stick to old-fashioned methods and products', says Eric Hammond, General-secretary of the EETPU. There are other trade union leaders, though, who accuse the EETPU of capitalizing on the misfortunes of fellow workers. The accusation has been made most fiercely about their co-operation with Rupert Murdoch's move to computerized production of The Times and the Sun newspapers at his new plant in Wapping where he has sacked more than 5,000 print workers in the process.

So should the trade unions limit their activities to grabbing for their own members the shrinking number of jobs available? A growing number of workers and trade unionists now believe that it is possible to do more than this - to take more positive action that ensures that the technology works for the people rather than the other way around.

The guru of this approach in Britain has been Mike Cooley of the Greater London Enterprise Board. 'There are,' he says, enormous opportunities for the trade union movement to avoid "Wapping-like" situations where technology simply overwhelms them.' For him it is not a question of swimming with the tide of new technology or swimming against it. What matters is the design of the technology and whose interests it serves.

'The point is that of itself technology is not neutral.' It is true that so far new technology has been designed to concentrate on predictability at the expense of intuition and creativity. But there is an alternative. 'One should,' he says, 'deliberately design human-enhancing qualities into the technology.'

Lathe operation has been one example of both the problem and the opportunity. This does involve skill on the part of the operator but there is also a lot of repetitive manual work. There are two approaches to computerizing lathe operation. The first involves transferring the skill of the operator to a computer program which will do virtually the whole job. Less-skilled operators simply feed a tape into a machine and by choosing from a limited number of options can produce high quality products.

But at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology Professor Rosenbrock has shown that there is another approach. He has designed a computer-aided lathe in which the operator can still choose how to direct his equipment using a visual display. In other words while the computer does the heavy and repetitive work, the human being still contributes the creativity.

'The most precious asset we have is the skill, ingenuity and creativity of ordinary people', says Cooley.

His attitude to technology is straightforward. 'If it's not doing for us what we want, then we have a right and a responsibility to change it'. The problem is that 'those who have power in society, epitomized by the vast multinational corporations, are concerned with extending their power and gaining control over human beings rather than liberating them'.

Everywhere the story seems the same. New technology means a loss of jobs, a process of de-skilling and greater control by management But thankfully there are some instances where new technology has come much closer to the promise of liberation from toil and more freedom and leisure for workers.

In Sheffield, once the heart of industrial Britain, workers in the housing department have negotiated a far-reaching new technology agreement with the City Council. As well as no redundancy, there was also an agreement that there should be no cuts in the number of jobs, explains the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO).

Under the manual system the department handled 12,000 repairs of city-owned housing a month. With the new equipment 17,000 repairs a month could be processed, so more manual workers were employed to carry out the repairs - and the tenants received a better service. At the same time housing staff are not allowed to operate the VDUs for more than two hours at a stretch.

It does need pressure by trade unions at the critical stages if they are to have any impact And 100 per cent success is unlikely. The Association of Telephone and Phonogram Operators of Australia (ATPOA), for example hammered out a new technology agreement with Telecom Australia which meant hundreds of job losses but also created some new jobs and customer services.

'We've not got much industrial muscle', admitted Ms Marilyn Brown, President of the ATPOA. 'We made use of community and political support to win concessions from Telecom.' Even so Telecom employs only 6,500 telephonists today, almost half the number employed in the 1970s.

In the United States the '9 to 5 National Association of Working Women' is a campaigning group which claims to have had a major impact on the way new technology has been introduced by leading US corporations. 'We've been so persuasive there's a whole different attitude by private computer companies, who now market their equipment for its ergonomic and human factors', said 9 to 5 spokesperson, Ms Deborah Meyer.

Cases of blue-collar - largely male - workers winning new-technology battles do also exist but they are few and far between. The most significant was the achievement of IG Metal, the West German metal workers' union, in reducing the working week from 40 hours down to 38½ in 1984, after a nationwide strike.

For the future, Mr Dave Fowler, spokesperson for the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) in Geneva, is quite clear. 'It's a question of control. New technology should be used for socially useful purposes, to create an interface between man and machine, not just a situation where the worker pushes the button', he said.

But even though more workers continue to join the warehouse staff, telephone operators and car workers on the dole, Mike Cooley is optimistic. 'The technological future is not an uncharted coastline waiting to be discovered: it is still to be built', he argues. 'Its eventual shape depends on the choices made by people like you and me'.

John Tanner is a freelance journalist specializing in development issues.


Robots are displacing manual workers in manufacturing industry. The figures here are an estimate of the number of robots per thousand manufacturing employees in each country in 1983.



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New Internationalist issue 162 magazine cover This article is from the August 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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