Automation and workers

Posted: 7 January 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,


As readers know, I have no particular nostalgia for industry. Or for the supposedly good manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of the American Dream in the postwar period.

That’s why I agree (in part) with Dietz Vollrath in his response to Nouriel Roubini’s dire warnings about the risk to blue-collar manufacturing jobs posed by the introduction of robotics and automation. Not that I think the risks for workers are not dire, just that the problem is not solved by attempting to restore manufacturing jobs in the United States and other advanced nations.

While Vollrath dismisses too quickly the real possibility that software and machines will continue to destroy jobs and displace workers (displaced workers may indeed, after a fashion, find jobs in other sectors but at what wages?), he does correctly challenge the idea that producing goods (as against services) is a necessary condition for creating “good jobs.”

So let’s ignore the phantom worry that tens of millions workers suddenly find themselves completely at a loss to find work. The economy is going to find something for these people to do. The question is what kind of jobs these will be.

Will they be “bad jobs”? McJobs at retail outlets, wearing a nametag? These aren’t “good jobs”, real jobs. Making “stuff” is a real job, not some made-up bullshit service job.

We can worry about the quality of jobs, but the mistake here is to confound “good jobs” with manufacturing or goods-producing jobs. Manufacturing jobs are not inherently “good jobs”. There is nothing magic about repetitively assembling parts together. You think the people at Foxconn have good jobs? There is no greater dignity to manufacturing than to providing a service. Cops produce no goods. Nurses produce no goods. Teachers produce no goods.

Manufacturing jobs were historically “good jobs” because they came with benefits that were not found in other industries. Those benefits – job security, health care, regular raises – have nothing to do with the dignity of “real work” and lots to do with manufacturing being an industry that is conducive to unionization. The same scale economies that make gigantic factories productive also make them relatively easy places to organize. They have lots of workers collected in a single place, with definitive safety issues to address, and an ownership that can be hurt deeply by shutting down the cash flow they need to pay off debt. To beat home the point, consider that what we consider “good” service jobs – teacher, cop – are also heavily unionized. Public employees, no less.

That’s right: to the extent that manufacturing jobs were “good jobs” (and, in my view, we do need to dispute that idea that they really were “good jobs”), it wasn’t because workers produced real, tangible goods; it’s because the workers were unionized and were able (with the aid of higher real minimum wages, better-financed government supervision of worker safety, and so on) to bargain over their pay and working conditions. They aren’t able to do that now in most of the private-sector service-producing industries. In other words, it’s not what workers produce but under what conditions they produce.

So, if we’re going to move beyond the nostalgia for industry, what do we need to do? Nourbini suggests education; Vollrath goes a bit further: “reverse the loss of labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership” (by raising minimum wages and making it easier for service-workers to unionize), extend social insurance, and provide more support for training and education.

What neither Roubini nor Vollrath can imagine is a change in the way the enterprises themselves are organized. If workers had a real say in the places where they work—if they could choose the software and machines with which they produce goods and services, if they could set their wage levels, if they could decide how many jobs are created, and so on—then automation would not pose a threat to their livelihoods or to the communities within which they live and work.

As I wrote above, it’s not what workers produce but how they produce that matters. The fact that the decisions about automation remain in the hands of a tiny minority of directors and managers (supported, in turn, by a financial machine that shares in the rewards)—that’s the real problem. Solving that problem, by making enterprises more democratic, is the only way to meet Roubini’s challenge: “The gains from technology must be channeled to a broader base of the population than has benefited so far.”

  1. BRF says:

    Good post, quite interesting. It is the old story of Ford introducing a new machine at an assembly plant and asking the union head what he thought of the new machine and the people it replaced. The union boss’s reply was a question back to Ford, ” How many cars do you think your new machine is going to buy in it’s lifetime?” Of course in the west financialization has replaced manufacturing and so the population superfluous to the economy’s needs will eventually be relegated to third world extreme poverty status. The police will need tanks and the training for massive repression of protesters as this comes to pass

  2. Buce says:

    I also like the post — the linkage between manufacturing and unionization is a good one, and the punch line about workplace democracy is as apt as ever. But I think it does matter “what” workers produce, as well as “how.” From Adam Smith onwards through Marx and into the present in the form of “cumulative causation,” there are legitimate points to be made about how and why production of some use-values has consequences different from production of others. Don’t throw out the baby….

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