After years of growing concern over technology displacement, the long overdue debate on automation fizzled in the mid-1960s. Charles Silberman, writing in Fortune, declared that “the effects of automation on employment have been wildly and irresponsibly exaggerated, principally by social scientists who seem to be engaged in a competiti-on in ominousness.”^^
The failure to adequately address the question of technological unemployment is partially the fault of organized la-bor. The voice of millions of working Americans, the labor movement waffled repeatedly on the issue of automatio-n, only to eventually cast its lot with management, to the detriment of its own constituency.
The father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, who perhaps more than any other human being was in a position to cl-early perceive the long-term consequences of the new automation technologies, warned of the dangers of widespr-ead and permanent technological unemployment. He wrote, “If these changes in the demand for labor come upon us in a haphazard and ill-organized way, we may well be in for the greatest period of unemployment we have yet seen.”^^
Weiner became so fearful of the high-tech future he and his colleagues were creating that he wrote an extraordin-ary letter to Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, pleading for an audience. He warned Reuther that the cybernetic revolution “will undoubtedly lead to the factory without employees.” Weiner predicted that “In the hands of the present industrial set-up, the unemployment produced by such plants can only be disastrous,” and promised Reuther his full backing and personal loyalty in any concerted national campaign by organized labor to address the issue. ^^
Reuther was initially sympathetic and began to faintly echo Weiners concerns before congressional committees and in public addresses. He warned that “The economy has failed to generate the purchasing power necessary to abs-orb the volume of goods and services which we have the technologies … to produce,” and urged the federal gov-ernment to “create the necessary demand.”^’*
Other union leaders spoke out cautiously against the new technological forces that were threatening millions of jo-bs. George Meany, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO, warned that the new labor-saving technologies were “r-apidly becoming a curse to this society . . . in a mad dash to produce more and more with less and less labor, and
without feeling [as to] what it may mean to the economy as a whole/’^^ Despite all of the public rhetoric, howeve-r, organized labor proved far more conciliatory behind closed doors in the collective bargaining process. As histori-an David Noble documents in The Forces of Production, the unions for the most part capitulated to management on the issues surrounding automation. Fearful of being branded as modern-day Luddites and obstacles to progres-s, labor leaders were forced on the defensive. Many, including Reuther s own union, openly embraced the new la-borsaving technologies. In 1955 the UAW issued a resolution at its annual convention amounting to a ringing end-orsement of the very forces of automation that were beginning to seriously erode their membership rolls: “The UAW welcomes automation [and] technological progress. . . . We offer our cooperation … in a common search for policies and programs . . . that will insure that greater technological progress will result in greater human progres-s.”^^
Having accepted both the inevitability and even desirability of laborsaving technology, labor began to lose the mo-mentum it had enjoyed since the end of World War II. Boxed into a corner, the union made a hasty retreat, shifti-ng their collective bargaining demands from the issue of control over production and work processes to the call for job retraining. On the eve of the historic transition from mechanization to automation of production, the labor mov-ement made a calculated decision to push for retraining, in the belief that while a vast number of unskilled jobs would be eliminated by the new computer technologies, the number of skilled and technical jobs would be increas-ed. The CIO laid out the new strategy in a pamphlet issued in 1955, entitled “Automation.”
The introduction of automated machines and electronic computers will likely result in lay-offs and in the upgrading of the level of skills required in the workforce. . . . The prospect of labor displacement can be eased, in part, by joint consultation between companies and unions and by management planning to schedule the introduction of au-tomation in periods of high employment, to permit attrition, reduce the size of the labor force, and to allow time for the retraining of employees.^^
The AFL-CIO passed a number of resolutions at its annual conventions in the 1960s, calling for retraining provisio-ns in collective bargaining agreements. Employers were more than willing to concede
to labors new demands. The costs of introducing retraining programs was far less onerous than the prospect of a long and protracted battle with labor over the introduction of new automated technologies on the shop floor Betw-een i960 and 1967, the percentage of collective bargaining agreements containing provisions for job retraining inc-reased from 12 percent to more than 40 percent.^^ Labor also lent its political muscle to federal legislation to pro-mote job retraining. In 1962 the AFL-CIO mobilized rank-and-file support behind the passage of the Manpower De-velopment Training Act, which was designed to provide retraining for workers displaced by automation.
By abandoning the question of control over the technology in favor of calls for retraining, the unions lost much of their effective bargaining power. Had control issues remained a strong priority, labor might have successfully nego-tiated collective bargaining agreements with management that would have ensured labor participation in productivity gains brought on by automation. Shorter workweeks and increased wages could have been tied to increases in pr-oductivity. Instead, labor capitulated, contenting itself with defensive agreements that provided job security for older workers, phased attrition of the existing workforce, and limited retraining opportunities for its members as ways of dealing with automation.
While the unions were correct in their belief that automation would shrink the ranks of the unskilled labor force, th-ey grossly overestimated how many high-skilled jobs would be created by the new technologies. They failed to co-me to grips with the central dynamic of the automation revolution—managements single-minded determination to replace workers with machines wherever possible, and, by so doing, reduce labor costs, increase control over pro-duction, and improve profit margins. Some workers were retrained and found better high-skilled jobs; most did not. There were simply too many displaced workers and too few new high-tech jobs being created. The result was that the unions began to lose members and clout. Eventually, automation destroyed their most important single weapo-n—the strike. The new technologies allowed management to run plants with skeletal crews during strikes, effective-ly undermining the unions’ ability to win significant concessions at the collective bargaining table.
To their credit, many unions did fight back, attempting to forestall “the inevitable” and win as many concessions for their rank and file as possible. The longshoremen, refinery workers, printers’ unions, and
others used strikes, slowdowns, and various means at their disposal to protect their members from the onslaught of automation. The International Typographers Union was one of the more militant unions in regard to automation. In 1966 its New York local was able to secure a labor agreement with New York newspaper publishers that “gave the union absolute authority over the types of technology which could be brought into the composing room.” For eight years the ITU was able to stave off the shift from hot metal printing to cold type and forestall the automati-on of the composing room. The Big Three newspapers—T^^ New York Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post —had agreed to the 1966 contract giving the ITU control over the introduction of new technology on the sh-op floor in the hope that the unions’ resistance to cold type would eventually bankrupt their competitors. That is exacdy what happened. In that period, New Yorks six smallest newspapers folded, in part because they could no longer afford the increasing labor costs associated with hot type. By 1974 the union was widely viewed as respon-sible for the bankruptcy of the smaller publishers and the loss of hundreds of jobs. The national media and the business community accused the ITU of being antiprogress and, worse yet, to blame for the loss of the very jobs the union had fought so hard to protect. ^^
Public pressure on the union increased, and in 1974 its leaders capitulated to management and public perception, signing an agreement to rescind their veto power over the introduction of new technologies in the composing roo-m. In return, the union was guaranteed lifetime employment for currently employed typesetters and a handsome early retirement program. The agreement also called for systematic reductions of the workforce, phased in over a period of time. The publishers were willing to make short-term wage and benefit concessions, knowing that the his-toric agreement would mean the death knell for the union in the long run. The union, for its part, felt trapped by the increasing pressures of automation and public opinion and was determined to secure the best terms it could for its remaining members, while resigning itself to eventual extinction. Years later, former New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin reflected on what had taken place. He wrote, “The New York publishers’ willingness to be so generous in negotiating the 1974 contract stemmed from an awareness of both sides that the packet represented the last hurrah for the typographical union. The union had strength enough to exact a high price for removing its veto power over automated processes, but the advent of automation effectively stripped it of future power All
that the union can novv look forw-ard to is a precipitous decline, as old-timers retire or die off and the traditional composing room disappears “-“^^
In the end, the technological forces sw^eeping throu^ the econ-om\ pro\ ed too po>%^rful a foe. Their ranks thin-ned b> \\^a\ e after \\^\ e of new technological innovation, as well as b> losses suffered at the hainis of foreign competition, the nations blue collar unions began their historic retreat and now ejost as httle more than a hoDo\*’ reminder of their once pre-eminent rcJe in American economic life.
Toda> – the concerns ov er automalMMi are being heard once again. This time, howe\^r the field upon ^wiiidi the battle o\ er technology* is being fou^t has grown dramaticaDy to encompass the w hole United States economy and mudi of the global marketplace. Issues surround-iag techncJogical unemployment \«4udi a generation ago tou-ched primariK’ the manufacturing sectJMr of the ec<Miom>, affecting poor Uack workers and blue collar laborers, are now being raised in e\ ery sectXHT erf the economy, and b> Nirtuall) every group and class <rf wcMrkers^
The bitter exp>erience of black laborers and blue collar workers in the traditional manufacturing industries o\^er the past quarter century is an augur of what lies ahead as miOkms of addttional nxirkers are idled by massi\Te techn-cJogical displacement Americas underclass, w hich is still lai^gely Uadc and urban, is likely to become increasin^y w liite and suburban as the new thinking machines relendessly make their wa\ up the ec(HM»nic pyramidL absorb-ing more and more skilled jobs and tasks along the way.
The wuldhas changed dramaticaDy in the three decades since the National Commission cm Autcxnation. TedmcJc-^- and Eccxiomic Progress issued its report Norbert Weiners premonition erf a world x^ithout \\x>rkers is fest beco-ming an issue (rf public concern in the industrialized nations. The Third Industrial RevxJution is forcing a \\T>r^d^^-ide econcHnic crisis of monumental proportions as millions lose their jobs to techndogical innovatifHi^ and ^obal purchasing power plummets. As in the 1920s, v^^e find ourseh es dangerously close to another great depression, y^t not a sin^ \xx)rld leader seems willing to entertain the possibility that the global economx is mo\ing inexorably toward a shrinldng labor market \\ith potentially profound consequences for cixilization.
Fbhticians eMeryiA-here hax^e failed to grasp the fundamental na-
ture of the changes taking place in the global business community. In corporate boardrooms, on plant floors, and in retail stores around the world, a quiet revolution has been going on. Businesses have been busy restructuring their organizations, in effect reinventing themselves, to create new management and marketing structures that can work effectively alongside the extraordinary array of new information and telecommunication technologies being hu-rried on-line. The result is a radical transformation in the way the world does business that threatens to bring into question the very role of the mass worker in the coming century.
The emerging world of lean management, high-technology production, and global commerce had its beginnings in the mid-1960s. The ink barely had time to dry on the report issued by the National Commission on Automation, when the world economy began to make its historic shift into the post-Fordist era, laying the organizational groun-dwork for a workerless future.


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