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Automation Is Making Unions Irrelevant 510

dcblogs writes "Michigan lawmakers just approved a right-to-work law in an effort to dismantle union power, but unions are already becoming irrelevant. The problem with unions is they can't protect jobs. They can't stop a company from moving jobs overseas, closing offices, or replacing workers with machines. Indeed, improvements in automation is making the nation attractive again for manufacturing, according to U.S. intelligence Global Trends 2030 report. The trends are clear. Amazon spent $775 million this year to acquire a company, Kiva Systems that makes robots used in warehouses. Automation will replace warehouse workers, assembly-line and even retail workers. In time, Google's driverless cars will replace drivers in the trucking industry. Unions sometimes get blamed for creating uncompetitive environments and pushing jobs overseas. But the tech industry, which isn't unionized, is a counterpoint. Tech has been steadily moving jobs overseas to lower costs."
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Automation Is Making Unions Irrelevant

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  • by pkbarbiedoll ( 851110 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @05:56PM (#42294337)

    Automation is making human labor irrelevant, regardless of union participation.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @05:57PM (#42294351)

    Who will be left with any real income to buy all this stuff?

  • Union perspective (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Livius ( 318358 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @05:59PM (#42294405)

    The fact that unions think they are there to protect jobs, rather than do them, is the root of their problems.

  • by Shivetya ( 243324 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:00PM (#42294417) Homepage Journal

    they just stopped worry about protecting workers. The real power of unions is all in government employee unions who hold an undue amount of influence over those who set their pay. Even FDR knew the pitfalls of that.

    What is going to end unions is the unrepentant greed amongst the public employee unions who expect taxpayers to shut up and put up. Well a few states are well on their way that a few cities have gone, bankrupting or using financial crisis to void ridiculous promises and payouts.

    Some of the worse retirement payouts and age at which they can retire is just silly to the point of sickening.

  • by kenaaker ( 774785 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:01PM (#42294451)
    What the discussion will come around to is "What is the purpose of human society".

    The survivors will come to a different conclusion than the initial participants in the discussion.

  • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:06PM (#42294543)

    And it does not help that they focus all their attention on workplaces that are easy to unionize, and not on occupations that are genuinely underpaid or otherwise exploited.

  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:06PM (#42294551)

    The real power of unions is all in government employee unions who hold an undue amount of influence over those who set their pay.

    You assume that most Fedeal workers are well paid and still have a great retirement plan. This is not the case.

    Take a look at the GS wage charts, and what a government retirement is today (no more than a 401k).

    It's not as "sweet" as you think.

  • by Phrogman ( 80473 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:06PM (#42294559) Homepage

    Yep get rid of all the unions and we can go back to the good old days of companies hiring "Strike-Breakers" to beat people to death because they don't want to work for slave labor wages. That'll be fun. /sarcasm off

    Unions served to get some essential rights for workers from the rich industrial barons who didn't give a fuck about those who slaved for them. For a while they served very well.

    Now the rich and powerful are destroying the unions in the name of increased profits and will again fuck their employees. Its an Employers world right now, and they get to make the rules - unless you are in high demand in a few rare industries, government or management. The loss of union power and collective bargaining will NOT be good for North America. I guess this is what they mean by "trickle down economics" eh?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:07PM (#42294595)
    You've hit on the real heart of the matter here. We have way, way too many people on this little blue marble. Back in the days of manual labor and agriculture, we needed people - the more, the better. With everything mechanized and automated, there is no need for this many people. In fact, the extra people are nothing but unproductive dead weight, a net negative rather than a positive. The free market deals with this by diminishing their value, lowering their income, in an attempt to excise the cancer. Due to humanitarian reasons, we cannot just send them to death camps, but the market is doing the best it can. At some point, after peak automation, we will not need a population of the size we have. Some would argue that there need be no population at all - a Skynet scenario, I guess. I think that's taking things too far, but a much smaller global population of strictly scientist and engineers is a necessity and a logical conclusion to the technological curve. At that point, the idea of money can go away, and the idea of working for the continuation and betterment of lifestyle and the elevation of society and culture (the 'Star Trek' model) can take over.
  • by bjourne ( 1034822 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:08PM (#42294615) Homepage Journal
    Automation is only making human labour irrelevant as long as it is cheaper. Low labour costs means there is no incentive to invest in automation. Which is why Japan and Sweden has the highest number of industrial robots per capita in the world. Evil unions that drive labour costs through the roof and forces poor companies to automate.
  • by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:09PM (#42294649) Journal

    Automation is shifting repetitive, uncreative, brutish work to repetitive, uncreative, brutish machines, thus freeing humans to pursue nobler interests.

    No consolation to the workers who can't find new jobs, I know. But for the larger society, the benefits outweigh the costs.

    In every change some prosper, some lose. But the same happens in every status quo. We may as well choose technological progress.

    If we are compassionate, we can give the displaced workers opportunities to learn new skills.

  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:11PM (#42294699)
    That's frankly OK with me in the bigger picture. It is better to have two parties fighting over power (unions vs corporations) rather then having one party (corporations) running unchecked.
  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:13PM (#42294725) Journal

    "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich."
    --JJ Rousseau

  • by operagost ( 62405 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:13PM (#42294741) Homepage Journal
    Let me ask you: do you really think that companies would get away with beating their workers if unions were to disappear? If not, why bring it up?
  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:15PM (#42294791)

    Unions served to get some essential rights for workers

    Horses and buggies served to provide essential transportation. The question is not whether unions were once beneficial, but rather whether they are beneficial today.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:19PM (#42294871)

    Yeah, and as we all know Sweden is the country with the highest unemployment humanly possible and its economy is about to collapse. People are rioting in the streets and even camp outside ... no, wait, that wasn't Sweden...

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:29PM (#42295095)

    History tells us that you can only oppress a sizable amount of your population if you can either convince them that it's good the way it is (some sort of bullshit akin to a "god given place in your life") or if they still have something they could lose. Well, we can say with some certainty that nobody really gives a shit about the former (could that be the reason why the overzealous religious right wants to push the cult of zombie Jesus, in the vain hope that people return to actually believing it should be that way?). So you have to keep people fed and sheltered somehow.

    Once this last straw isn't met, all it takes is a leader.

  • Tech jobs (Score:4, Insightful)

    by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:30PM (#42295119) Journal

    > Tech has been steadily moving jobs overseas to lower costs.

    ...with often less than satisfactory results.

  • by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:35PM (#42295225)

    Michigan lawmakers just approved a right-to-work law in an effort to dismantle union power,

    Right-to-work is the law in many European nations with strong labor unions.

    The widespread use of closed shop and union security agreements is a US aberration and has nothing to do with union power in general, it has to do with protecting the power of a few powerful and politically connected organizations.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:42PM (#42295319)

    It's also idiotic... because who buys the stuff? It's the lower/middle class people that buy the vast majority of things. You replace their jobs with robots... they don't have any money to buy things and your economy grinds to a halt.

    Nice work greedy fucks - kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Henry Ford - for all his bad qualities understood this - he paid his workers well because they used their spare income to buy his cars. Robots don't buy the cars they build.

  • by Sir_Eptishous ( 873977 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:44PM (#42295349) Homepage
    I agree with much of your analysis.
    However the speed of technological change, and the rate at which human labor becomes irrelevant, are quickly outpacing any kind of egalitarian drive in human society, any kind of evolution as a species regarding our interactions with one another.

    The reality is, in the next 50 years much of the human race, especially in the developed world, will become irrelevant to the "machine world" that will replace human labor. The systems in place to support the lifestyles of those in control won't need the millions of permanently un-employed, and they won't foot the bill for some kind of social welfare system to keep them quiet.

    More likely a permanent state of drugged obedience via constant virtual escapism while being constantly controlled and monitored by the omniscient security apparatus.
  • Automation is good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by enriquevagu ( 1026480 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:47PM (#42295417)

    Repeat with me: Automation is good. It makes we, human kind, more productive. With the same human work, we can get more benefits for ourselves, so on average our wealth improves. The people that do not need to do manual and repetitive jobs can move to a more creative work which produces more benefit for mankind. Gutenberg's printing was good. e-mail was good, despite removing works in the Post office. Hydraulic excavators are good. And all of them reduce the number of jobs, and unions cannot and shouldn't try to prevent this. Fortunately, we are no longer relying on picks and shovels to dig tunnels.

    The problem is not with automation, which is good for mankind as a whole; the problem is with the distribution of wealth. We are facing a serious problem, in which those who have the machines (capital) become much richer by producing the same as before, and those that lose their employments become poorer. I certainly believe that this problem will aggravate with time, as more jobs are out-dated by technology, and "the system" cannot provide an alternative way to earn a living.

    One option might be to move to a system in which everyone has a basic "social earning", enough for a living, while those with a work would earn more money. However, this imposes serious trouble, such as obvious abuse and unfairness. I see the problem, but I don't foresee a clear solution.

  • by ghostdoc ( 1235612 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:55PM (#42295537)

    If we are compassionate, we can give the displaced workers opportunities to learn new skills.

    As we move towards a post scarcity society some questions are raised that can only be answered by something closely resembling central wealth redistribution. Not full blown communism but the guarantee of a reasonable standard of living for everyone, with the opportunity to get more if you want to. Much of Europe is basically operating on this principle at the moment, and as time passes I feel we'll see a higher standard emerge.

    No, and I mean NO! because central wealth distribution has been shown time and again to disincentivise people from actually doing something useful with their lives. If you earn enough from benefits, and your benefits reduce if you work/produce value, then why do anything useful? And Benefit Dependency is a really nasty pernicious place to be in.

    As such, it's pretty much essential that we focus on figuring out how best to help people learn and reach their potential.

    Yes! Education has to change. We have to stop emphasising rote learning, obedience, testing, conformity, all that shit that creates good little worker drones, and reinvent true education. Luckily there are huge leaps being made in online education at the moment, so being able to provide everyone with a better education is going to be easier and cheaper. Hopefully we'll move away from the school system too, and integrate child education back into our work life and home life.

  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:57PM (#42295567)

    thus freeing humans to pursue nobler interests.

    Yeah, we'll have plenty of time on our hands to pursue interests like huddling around trashcan fires, stealing food, and begging for change.

  • by bondsbw ( 888959 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:01PM (#42295645)

    Giving everyone a basic income would provide them a safety net, encouraging risk-taking and innovation. Whoever does succeed contributes more back to the societal safety net.

    But some people don't try. They don't want to try. If given a choice between a free shack and a nice home they can work to afford, they will choose the shack. How do we get them to contribute something positive to society, and to take the risks that the safety net is intended to promote?

  • by F'Nok ( 226987 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:07PM (#42295793)

    Not everywhere has the incredible income disparity of the US, so you're making a lot of assumptions that while valid for the US, don't apply to the rest of the world as equally.

    Probably the take away from that is that other nations are evidence that there are other ways and perhaps the US should start looking at them.

    When I go out for dinner here in Australia, my waiter isn't on minimum wage, we don't have a culture of tipping because they actually get paid enough to live.

    No, no one needs to be paid the minimum wage, and the minimum wage conditions of the US are frightening to me and evidence of serious social inequality and damage.

    The unemployment benefits in Australia are larger than a full time job on minimum wage in most states of the US. That's how stark the difference is.

    The problem is not that 'someone needs to be paid minimum wage'. Because there are nations where the US concept of minimum wage would be considered poverty.

  • by hab136 ( 30884 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:16PM (#42295977) Journal

    >No, and I mean NO! because central wealth distribution has been shown time and again to disincentivise people from actually doing something useful with their lives. If you earn enough from benefits, and your benefits reduce if you work/produce value, then why do anything useful? And Benefit Dependency is a really nasty pernicious place to be in.

    The thinking is that there isn't enough useful work to be done. Machines will do most of the grunt work, and you only need x engineers/electricians/other useful jobs per 100,000 people, so what should everyone else do? There's only so much room for artists/writers/musicians. So, since there is no work to be done, yet the person still needs to live, they need to be supported somehow.

    The alternative is: there's no work for you to do, please starve to death.

    The ratio of employed people to the total population has been slowly shrinking in the US. Currently 58.7% of the US population is working; the rest are not. []

    What happens when that ratio dwindles lower, to 40%, or 25%, or 10%?

  • by WrongMonkey ( 1027334 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:20PM (#42296051)
    "More likely a permanent state of drugged obedience via constant virtual escapism while being constantly controlled and monitored by the omniscient security apparatus."

    You make that sound like a bad thing. But for many people, getting high and playing video games all day would be a kind of utopia.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:24PM (#42296131)

    there are nations where the US concept of minimum wage would be considered poverty.

    The US itself is one of them.

  • by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:39PM (#42296435) Journal

    "More likely a permanent state of drugged obedience via constant virtual escapism while being constantly controlled and monitored by the omniscient security apparatus."

    What's likely I don't know, but another possibility is that, just as with other species, where imbalance occurs nature will impose a new equilibrium that leaves us with a smaller population.

    Our economic system is clearly unsustainable in ways environmental and mathematical. That means our current way of life won't last forever. Since we don't seem to be doing much to fundamentally change, we are leaving the coming transition entirely in the hands of nature.

  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:41PM (#42296467) Homepage Journal

    We should challenge the economics that says we can't create money and give it to people. In fact we created $16 trillion

    - yeah, you can clearly print money, but it doesn't mean you create anything of value when you print money.

    Clearly the 16 Trillion dollars printed does not mean that 16 Trillion dollars worth of goods and services was produced and that is the problem, because all you do with printing 16 Trillion new dollars without any economic activity behind them is you dilute the value of all dollars in existence.

    Of-course the Fed will now print 45Billion a month to buy bonds forever, and that is just the floor, they'll print much more than that. Oh, and that's in addition to 40 Billion a month to buy mortgages (and that is also just a floor).

    Of-course the bubble that is being inflated is in debt, it's a credit bubble and it WILL take down the US dollar as a 'reserve currency' and may end up completely destroying the dollar from point of view of purchasing power.

    Since 1971 dollar lost 98% of its purchasing power. Since 1913 dollar lost over 99% of its purchasing power. This means something, it's not just an abstract idea, it means that you need 100x as many dollars to buy something as before. It means that an ounce of gold could be earned by a Ford worker in 1 week in 1914 (an ounce was 19 dollars and Ford made it a 5 day, 8 hour work week to be competitive because of high turnover).

    But that means that Ford workers in 1914 had much more purchasing power than today. In 1914 they didn't pay income taxes (only top 1% paid since 1913 and the top rate was 7%). In 1914 there was no payroll or Medicare tax. The government was tiny there was no need to take all these taxes, there was no illegal wars of-course either.

    A Ford worker would have to make maybe 4000USD per week today to match his predecessor in the company who worked there 100 years ago, and 100 years ago he would have made 25 dollars but would have been better off for it. Here is the problem, you can't print money and think that you are actually creating any type of wealth, you can and will destroy your currency though and you won't be able to borrow for a long time after that, and since to destroy your currency you had to print all that money, you chased away all that investment capital (savings, that apparently governments hate if you have, but savings is what allows investments).

    You are talking about destroying all savings and you are talking about preventing all investments that's what you are talking about when you are talking about 'basic income' and printing money just to give to everybody.

    And when you say 'fundamental assumptions of popular economics', where is it popular today, real economics?

    You know what you are relying on, when you talk about printing money and giving it away as 'basic income'? You are relying on other people's labour somewhere, that supposedly will keep subsidising you by taking your freshly printed dollars. Well, I think teh 'fundamental assumptions of "popular" economics' will prove you wrong when the people who are still subsidising you will stop it because they'll realise that you can't give them anything back for that money at all.

  • by LordLucless ( 582312 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @08:07PM (#42296799)

    You work a lot more to watch tv than our ancestors (and some current cultures) do to watch the stars. It is all a matter of perception and values.

    And also to live longer, more free from pain, disease and hunger, and with greater physical security. It's not just a question of entertainment.

  • by erice ( 13380 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @08:18PM (#42296915) Homepage

    TIn a more egalitarian society... who gets to live in Downtown Manhatten in the 'nice' neighborhood close to transit? Answer that question without saying one person earns more than another.

    In a perfectly egalitarian society, the most desirable populated areas would still cost more and you would still get less. The people who lived there would be those willing to spend the largest fraction of their income to live in the smallest practical housing. This is largely how it works today.

    There would likely be areas that are populated today that would not be in this system. If no one can afford to live there, then the space will be used for other activities that can justify the cost. Or the rent reaches a plateau so getting in become a matter of chance, connections, and subterfuge. That happens today too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @08:36PM (#42297117)

    Not in Proper English.

    Fixed it for ya.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @09:03PM (#42297329) Homepage

    Consider "Right to Work" as a simple example, it is NOT the case that these laws repealed some requirement that all unions contract be exclusive by law. Those exclusivity terms were negotiated between two free groups. Instead these laws scratch out, by government fiat, parts of existing contracts and make it illegal for two parties to agree these terms.

    Because you are creating a monopoly that under very similar circumstances between companies would run afoul of antitrust legislation. Market collusion is also voluntary among all the companies engaged in price fixing, would you like to make that 100% legal? Competition is not a natural state, the natural state is that someone goes all-in and captures the market and it stays captive through lock-in and anti-competitive practices. It's like claiming a one-party state is democracy because you can always choose not to vote.

  • by MtHuurne ( 602934 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @09:11PM (#42297405) Homepage

    The thinking is that there isn't enough useful work to be done.

    There is plenty of useful work to be done: children would benefit from smaller classes, the elderly would like more attention, cities could be made prettier, there are lots of things that can be researched. The problem is that no-one is willing to pay for those things: we're always looking for lower costs, lower taxes, not higher quality of life.

  • by bondsbw ( 888959 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @09:18PM (#42297491)

    Surely, there will be some freeloaders, but so what?

    Your country must be more civilized. Where I live, the freeloaders are everywhere.

    One major problem is that the "system" is beyond the ability to control. The government provides assistance in all forms, but somehow that is never enough. Our government provides food, shelter, clothing, and emergency health care to the freeloaders. That's never enough though... now they need cell phones and laundry service and food/care for their pets and transportation and better living conditions. (Did I mention that despite the government assistance, they don't take care of themselves or their kids, so now there are more health care costs, etc.?)

    If you do work, you don't get much or any of that for free. You start at $0.00, and work for your money. Then you pay taxes, and buy those things I listed. By the time you pay for health insurance and everything else that puts you on the same level as a typical freeloader, you are left with little money to spend as you want. You work 40 hours per week, yet barely live any better than those who work 0 hours per week.

    So why slave away at a thankless job, away from my family during the day? I could be spending more quality time with my family, being lazy or doing whatever I can do without paying money for it... all while having all my needs and many of my wants provided for by the government check.

  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Saturday December 15, 2012 @04:32AM (#42299773) Homepage Journal

    Does it have to be someone's labor?

    - today it does and it's not only labour either. It's resources, it's capital land and labour and it's management of all of the components of production.

    What if our society could largely be run by machines and a small percentage of workers who maintain them in exchange for a higher standard of living?

    - so what about that? If it can be achieved that everything that we do today is done by machines and machines build machines and machines mine resources and machines provide the energy and machines fix machines, etc.etc.etc.

    At that point, once all of the input costs are no longer human related, then the cost of input is 0, cost of distribution is 0 to all humans.

    If that happens you will see that everybody can buy those machines with close to no money and the more of them are distributed the closer to 0 the costs are to the future buyers (you can buy a cellphone close to 0 today, I am talking about a simple mobile, not a smart phone, it's almost nothing, everybody has one even in the poorest countries).

    Yeah, but that's not what we have today.

    Have you considered that we may end up with more people than we have useful work for them to do, or that we might have useful work but it isn't valuable enough to earn a living?

    - that's the flaw in the thinking of people who do not in fact consider normal economics but look at it from a broken perspective.

    This flaw comes from misunderstanding economics, it comes from over-relying in their thinking on government, which is not a surprise, that's how most people 'see' things, (which is to say that's how bad most people's economic understanding is due to the system that exists that completely broke their understanding starting from the first day at school).

    What you consider to be mostly 'useful work' is what somebody, some individual, a human came up with as an idea as to how to profit by providing all other individuals with products. Most of the time people who are truly successful find a problem that they have that they want to solve in their own lives and then they expand it to cover everybody else.

    Think about Woz, he wasn't even concerned with selling computers to others, he just wanted to own one. Did he need somebody to create 'useful work' for himself? He created useful work all on his own without waiting for somebody else to give him a 'useful position'.

    Now, I am not saying that everybody is Woz. Here is a much more trivial example, much simpler than a guy building his own personal computer from microchips [] and here is her advertising on youtube [].

    She didn't need somebody else to come up with 'useful work' for her to do, she did it herself because she had a need and realised others did too. Governments of different States stand on her way, they are forcing her to pay crazy license fees in each State to put tags on those pillows that are designed to tell you what's in every pillow. That's crazy of-course, all the customers are buying those over the Internet and on her site it lists the components, so if you are allergic to them, you can immediately see it and not buy the pillow.

    It's a pillow that some woman started selling that she came up with and it's 'useful work' from her customers' perspectives, which is why she can make money off of that idea and work.

    Why did I say that your thinking is clouded by government propaganda? Because it is too close, almost indistinguishable from an idea that there has to be some central planning authority in a collective, that tells you what "useful work" is.

    What IS "useful work" but what you think IS useful or what other people think IS useful? That's the flaw in this type of thinking.

    Let me show you this in another easy to understand example:

    Do you have everything you ever wanted to posse

  • by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Saturday December 15, 2012 @04:44AM (#42299823) Homepage

    Yeah, I remeber when we were going to share in the rewards of automation, shorter working weeks, something like a 6 hour 4 day week, with the rest of the time spent in leisure and learning.


    Somehow all those benefits went to the top 1% and the rest were told not be be greedy (say what?) entitlement seeking unionists as their working hours went up and their wages went down.

    Sharing the benefits of productivity increases became a massive exercise in I've got mine and fuck you, all promoted by corporate mass media and institutionalised by lobbyists and corrupt politicians.

    'erm' yeah, we don't need unionists we need death squads to permanently silence the working in poverty. Seriously who is kidding who. It is becoming pretty obvious that we need unions now more than even to put an end to the corruption of our society by the psychopathic 1%.

"The pathology is to want control, not that you ever get it, because of course you never do." -- Gregory Bateson