How trade unions are addressing automation

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By throwing their shoes into the works? (Sabots)


I’m glad some societal organisations are approaching the externalities of automation from a point of view other than that of the underpants gnomes.


“Alexa at the front desk”? Let’s hope the guests don’t have Scottish accents …


First they came for the autoworkers, and I said nothing.

Then they came for the bank tellers and replaced them with ATMs, and I said nothing.

Then they came for the checkout clerks and cashiers at national chain hardware stores and groceries, and I said nothing.

Then they came for the workers in nursing homes, and I said nothing.

Then I read this last year, and I said nothing:

Then they came for the sex workers in Houston, Texas…

… and I was like… WTAF… (but said nothing).

So, as much as I believe in trade unions, have supported them, and have friends in unions, I can only say good luck and godspeed. And hurry up. The tides are running against a positive result here… unless we are facing one of those super duper collapse thingies John Michael Greer

and Dmitry Orlov

keep talking about.

In the meantime, I suspect a lot of us are going to consider the Finnish alternative, however temporary it may be:


Trade unions are still mostly organized for the problems of last century. They are organized around dealing with exploitation. They aren’t at all equipped to deal with labor being expendable.


Whenever I take those “how likely is it your job will be automated” quizzes for the various things I do, most of them turn out to be “slightly”. Still, the prospect of living in a society where 80% of people are made members of the unnecessariat because the answer came back “very” (with not much in between that and “slightly”) is one more of us in the first category should be worried about.


I am probably going to be very unpopular for this, but the fact is that entire industries have evaporated over fairly short periods of time before, mostly due to technology. Farriers and blacksmiths are no longer vital jobs, sail makers, chimney sweeps, peddlers, the list goes on. Throwing shoes in the works did not work in 18th century France, and there is nothing that will change the march of automation. The question is how do we deal with the displaced workers? Retraining, support, whatever. I grew up in West Virginia in a mining town. From the 70s on, more and more coal was produced with fewer and fewer miners. The idea that Trump would bring back jobs there was ridiculous because they were not lost to regulation, but to long wall continuous miners. Refusing to deal with that is (partly) why a deep blue state is now reddest red.


I think maybe the goal should be to deal proactively with the disruptions instead of just letting them happen.

Yes, this is what unions should be doing. We also need policies from the state/federal government that acknowledge the negative impact of disruptions and seek to minimize them. Change might be inevitable, but we can direct change, instead of letting it just upend everything, I think.


True. The difference here is that the general-purpose computer, unlike industry-specific development, has the ability to make a lot of jobs across a lot of industries evaporate in a fairly short period of time.

The reason people were throwing their shoes into the gears was that no-one at the time was offering them any alternatives for keeping themselves and their families sheltered and fed in the face of what is indeed the mostly virtuous* march of automation.

Where the original sabot-agers were responding to the indifference of delusion of the bosses and rulers toward the results of technological displacement within an industry, we may see some version of the Butlerian Jihad in response to the indifference of delusion of the bosses and rulers toward the results of technological displacement across an entire society.

[* that kind of work was dirty, dangerous and unpleasant. The Jaquard Loom, one of the first computers, mainly put children out of work]


I’ve worked in a number of (attempted) automated factories since the late 8o’s. Every time the success has been very limited. I still work in a factory that is attempting to automate away the workforce. In every case, automation has turned out to be quite a bit of hype. Robots are limited when it comes to adapting to an altered work flow, altered materials, and altered designs. One place I worked at spent a fortune on robots and after a year, they were lined up against a wall, unused, because they couldn’t function in an updated work flow design. Tesla was supposed to be a “dark factory” and Musk admitted one of the main problems with the car plant is that there was far too much faith placed in the automation process.

Robots are great for repetitive work that will last years, but other manufacturing issues seem to still need humans.


I think technology isn’t the main driver of industry disappearance, regardless of the endless “studies” stating so.

Manufacturing disappeared in a hurry as soon as NAFTA and China’s admittance to the WTO went through. Walmart would insist that suppliers move factories offshore so they could undercut other retailers, There was a mad rush. It wasn’t technology driving it, it was wage, tax, and environmental arbitrage.


or just make the rich actually pay their taxes, and use the funds to pay out universal social security

i worry about the mentality that everyone must “earn their keep” in an increasingly automated society will lead to a return to serfdom


“First they came for the autoworkers … bank tellers … checkout clerks … workers in nursing homes … sex workers …”

it will get interesting when it’s entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists that machines can do much better than.


They were unnecessary from the start. They don’t do anything that couldn’t be achieved without them.

This is the secret of wealth; find the starving and destitute, pay them half a crown (about 12.5p without adjusting for inflation), and make them produce five shillings (25p) worth in the day, amass a fortune by these means, and then increase it by some lucky hit, made with the help of the State.

Peter Kropotkin - The Conquest of Bread

Fully Automated Luxury Anarcho-Communism is the way to go.


It would be tough to argue that the equine based industries were extinguished by trade rather than automobiles, the vast majority of seafarers by steam ships, miners by automated mining machines. The jobs lost to NAFTA are going to be lost again to automation. As usual, at least at first, the low skill low wage workers will get hit first, but most of us are at risk. The question is not how to stop progress, but how to maintain civilization as it goes forward. Interesting times indeed.

I think one of the interesting things is everyone assumes that white collar workers are immune to automation… But the fact is they have already been hit with one wave of automation and are under constant pressure to further reduce labor while increasing the use of automation.

For instance - the finance field. I started in the late '90s, and I have seen staffing levels halved and halved again. No more clerks, fewer accountants, departments that would have been 100 strong now staffed with 10. Automation in the form of accounting systems and ERPs, eliminating all but the expert tasks.

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I’m all for unions. But unions can’t solve the problem of mass automation. In countries like the US they have a hard enough time getting people paid for the work they do, and expecting them to get people paid for work they don’t do (because a machine is doing it) seems like setting them up to fail even harder.

Besides, even if unions make employers pay workers for the jobs they used to have (as with container royalties), that just privileges the workers who happened to be sitting in the chair when the music stopped. Potentially you then have a new generational inequality problem on top of the lack of jobs (see season 2 of The WIre).

When a machine takes a job, it takes someone’s job, and that person deserves a fair redundancy package. But subsequently, that job doesn’t belong to anyone, because no one is doing it, so who do you compensate for the lost wages? Either the answer is “everyone” (e.g. via UBI), or you arbitrarily pick someone to collect rent on that machine’s work.


I would never say white collar workers are safe. I am a physician, and ought to be fairly safe, but more and more of what I do us decided by algorithms and fewer on relationships or other processes that are hard to automate. I figure “Dr. Watson” will take over a large chunk before I retire. Not sure what to think about the next generation though. The hologram doc from Star Trek is a real possibility. (Not so much the hologram part, before someone takes me to task on that.)


Get above the api or risk getting left behind.

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