Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
The Almighty Buck Businesses Robotics News

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Automation Is Making Unions Irrelevant

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:05PM (#42294529)

    Unions aren't simply about "protecting jobs". More importantly unions have been about protecting the worker. Don't forget about work place safety, 40 hour work weeks, and collective bargaining. Those are all products of unionized labor. All of which are far more important than simply "protecting jobs". Unions are about having jobs worth protecting. You also seem to conveniently neglect the existence of major unions whose labor force is not easily replaced with automation carpenters, plumbers, nurses, restaurant, etc. Oh and by the way IT people have unions too.

  • by digitalaudiorock ( 1130835 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:16PM (#42294811)

    The whole premise of the article seems to assume that unions are exclusively about 1950s-like factory jobs. How about all those low paying service jobs out there? I don't see too many robots stocking shelves at Walmart. In decades gone by, in a large part due to unions, a guy who was willing to get up every day and go sweep floors at a factory could actually survive. Today's equivalent, those low paying service jobs, pay so little you're almost better off not working at all.

    That's why unions are under attach these days...because a large chunk of corporate America is still dependent on a few jobs that they can't automate or outsource and, if unionized, might actually pay a fair wage...and we can't have that now can we??

  • by Alomex ( 148003 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:23PM (#42294981) Homepage

    Unions are still strong in Europe and they too have labor saving robots. The key difference is that both union and management philosophies seem to be different there. Managers have a social conscience and unions do not oppose every effort to increase productivity.

  • by scamper_22 ( 1073470 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:27PM (#42295055)

    The big problem is simply that people are used to living an advantageous life over other people.

    You see this all the time with people complaining about being paid the minimum wage.

    Well what is wrong with the minimum wage? Someone has to be paid the minimum wage. Those paid higher than the minimum wage simply take advantage of the labor of those paid less and get more 'stuff' in life.

    The public school teacher only has a 'good job' because some waiter is being paid minimum wage so they can go out to eat on a weekend. Because some textile worker is earning minimum wage assembling clothes and the teacher can get a new pair of jeans every few months...

    The position is privilege is what union workers are used to. Both in the public sector and the private sector.

    Ultimately, technology is going to make us more egalitarian. There might be a few rich people in charge of the robots that provide us with cheap goods, but you know what will get to the average Joe... that they cannot complete with the average Joe's anymore.

    In 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.

    I too don't fear technology. But I do fear humanity.
    Humans love to take advantage of each other.
    The 'evil' banker, the teacher, the police officer, the businessman, the engineer... we all in general want to live a better life than someone else.

    To truly take advantage of this technological progress, we must rid ourselves of this. That will be the hardest challenge.

    We all *know* the solution to this.
    Things like work sharing, decreased dependency on economy growth...
    The question is how will societies transition their people to this model.
    How will they convince public sector unions, doctors, lawyers... that their standard of living will be that of the average citizen?

    Change of this sort is hard at the political level and social level. You're talking about changing the social situation of millions and millions of people who are used to a certain kind of living.

    Forget about the displaced workers for a second.
    Most of these displaced workers are in the private sector... and much of the created need is in the public sector or public related sector (healthcare, education, transit...)

    At some point the lack of tax money paid by these displaced private sector workers is going to hit the pocket books of government wanted to spend on the public related sector. Wait a minute... I think this is where we pretty much are.

    So no matter how many new skills you give these displaced workers, there isn't any money or perhaps even need to give them all jobs in the new field at the current going rate of those fields.

    And you're back to tackling establishments in the banking sector, public sector... and taking away a life of privilege and jobs from millions upon millions of people.
    Can't say that is going to be easy to transition to... and you can expect a lot of social unrest in the process.

  • by UPZ ( 947916 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:33PM (#42295181)

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

    Not if the rich have drones dropping bombs on you. The realty is that are increasingly headed towards a future where we are becoming obsolete - both in terms of our labor and brain. Either we find something else to put on the table to keep playing the game in a capitalistic economic system, or change the capitalism game itself. Once the rich have their drone armies, do you think they will really need/care about the rest of us?

  • by blue trane ( 110704 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:37PM (#42295245) 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 (enough to pay off the entire national debt) in two years to bail out financial unions (source: [] ).

    The best option (that I can think of, at least) is to give everyone a basic income (an idea that goes back to Founding Father Thomas Paine in his 1795 Agrarian Justice []), and stimulate innovation and technological progress with challenges from both biz and govt (X Prize, DARPA challenges, Google bug bounties, Netflix prize, etc.). The resulting increase in knowledge advancement will raise our survival fitness fastest because knowledge empowers us to better predict and adapt to sudden catastrophic changes.

    We start by challenging the fundamental assumptions of popular economics, one of which is that government can only spend what it takes in. This assumption has been violated by the history of the United States, which has had a national debt since its very founding. Lincoln printed some $480 million greenbacks to raise money without increasing taxes or borrowing it. Japan runs a 230% debt-to-gdp ratio and has a currency they keep trying to devalue. Dick Cheney was right: Reagan proved that deficits don't matter.

  • by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @06:41PM (#42295307)

    Unions tend to be more prevalent in fields where automation will flourish. Physical labor, assembly line work, machinists, etc

    Unions are prevalent in fields that require less specialized skills (not lack of) meaning there is a broader cross-section of people qualified to do a given task. Because of this owners (This isn't confined just to corporations) tend to feel they can pit potential candidates against each other for the job with it going to the individual willing to do it for the least amount. When unions first came about in the US this practice was rampant and stifling enough people they rose up against it. As with most good intentions many Unions eventually became the master and just as evil as the overlords they were created to overthrow. "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" - Lord Acton []

    When I cannot turn on a light switch because it will lead to the unemployment of the "electrical engineer" something has gone terribly wrong.

  • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <> on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:02PM (#42295669)

    Ultimately, technology is going to make us more egalitarian. There might be a few rich people in charge of the robots that provide us with cheap goods, but you know what will get to the average Joe... that they cannot complete with the average Joe's anymore.

    Alas, I don't think this is the case - technology can go both ways, and so far, it's shifting away from egalitarianism and being explotied by those in power to gain more money and power.

    Think about what technology has given us, then think about how it's been misused such that we're in the state we're in. Stuff like HFT (which while serving a purpose on the market by offering liquidity, is also a great way to completely screw up the financial system - see flash crashes), the Internet (supposedly the bastion of free speech, is now used to oppress and divide - like joins like and people generally gravitate towards others who share their views), and all sorts of other stuff.

    Technology is neutral - it can be used for good purposes and bad, and so far it seems that the bad is taking over faster than the good. I believe someone once mocked "To err is human. To royally f**k up requires a computer".

    Also. unions, while typically considered blue collar work, are increasingly appearing in white collar jobs - there are plenty of people who belong to office worker unions doing the regular clerical duties around the office (filing, finding documents, keeping the place orderly, odering supplies, organizing, cleaning, etc.). Automation is correctly removing low skill repetive boring jobs that humans don't want to do - jobs that increasingly go to immigrants because no American wants to clean toilets all day, for example.

  • by F'Nok ( 226987 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:12PM (#42295887)

    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.

    There are a number of places in the world outside the US that show this to be untrue.

    Australian benefits are greater than US minimum wage (in most states) at full time. Yet somehow the unemployment in Australia is lower and all those minimum wage jobs seem to be filled.

    Perhaps it's a little more complicated than forcing people to work with the threat of poverty?

  • by ( 919212 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @08:11PM (#42296851)

    You are trying to answer the profoundly wrong question. More or less no one now or ever has expected or demanded a totally egalitarian society. Some few have maybe dreamed of it, but no one has demanded it. Even in communist countries there was no real expectation that every member of society would get exactly the same thing, more of the case that there was an attempt (unsuccessful) to prevent anyone from falling too low.

    The issue is if you don't stand up for yourself you will get walked over.

    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. Why if you are free to join with another person and start a company, should you not be free to join with another person and start a Union

    I have a great deal of faith in people to take care of themselves given the chance. The basic problem is there is a deliberate attempt to prevent people from being able to stand up for themselves. Let’s start by removing those barriers and see what happens.

  • by OneAhead ( 1495535 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @08:29PM (#42297023)

    I think you underestimate the impact of greed, strife and group-think. It's basically what consumerist/capitalist society is built on. You bombard people the whole day with advertisements that all carry the same message: If you buy this, you will be happy. [Take-home message: money creates happiness.] You will be superior to your neighbor who doesn't have it. Or go ahead and don't buy it, but you will be ridiculed and feel inferior and unhappy. These messages fall on fertile ground: they trigger people's instinctive tendencies to appear superior as to attract a better mate. Few people can resist these base tendencies, leave alone the tsunami of adverts enforcing them. If this wasn't true, rich people would retire to enjoy life once they hit the $10M mark.

    Surely, there will be some freeloaders, but so what? All they're doing is sidetracking themselves from society (and who knows, maybe one or two of them will turn out to be great artists). As long as that free shack is not overly luxurious, the number of freeloaders won't be too big, and society can handle it. That's why all these socialist countries in Northern Europe with their elaborate social safety net and unemployment benefits show no signs of collapsing (no, Greece is not in Northern Europe and is not a good example; what really brought Greece down is corruption and uncontrolled spending and also corruption and a bit of corruption.) Working-class people will be complaining in the pubs about the freeloaders, but in truth, they're really not a threat as long as their numbers are kept low by motivating them to get a job.

    Here's also the big distinction between Communism and modern-day western-European Socialism (or let's use the less ambiguous term Social democracy []). Communism does not sufficiently allow/motivate people to "become more" than their neighbor, thus denying human nature; therefore, it is doomed to fail. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, you have the laissez-faire doctrine of economic liberalism, as embodied in the US by ultralibertarianism, neoliberalism and neoconservatism - yes, that's all the major present-day US political movements with the (largely irrelevant) exception of the greens. This is also doomed to fail: throughout history, wealth has always found a way to aggregate, and a society that is not set up to effectively counterbalance this aggregation will eventually destabilize itself (ie. the poor and powerless will riot against the rich and powerful). As a result of all US political movements going full throttle for laissez-faire economic liberalism, income inequality in the US is at its highest value since a long time (and so is money's political influence). In my opinion, this is the single biggest threat to the USA and everything it stands for. The stable point lies in-between communism and laissez-faire capitalism. Progressive taxes are a large part of this because they promote a large middle class layer - people who have spending power (as opposed to the poor) and are motivated to spend all their money (as opposed to the rich). The associated turnover of money is the water that flows trough the waterwheel of a healthy economy.

    *gets off soapbox*

  • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @09:17PM (#42297467)

    There is a natural regulator on the pace of automation. It is the interest rate. If interest rates (prices) were set on a free market with a hard currency it would be based on how much money people had saved (supply) and how much people wanted to borrow (demand). This works out nicely because any automation involves a large expenditure of money to increase productivity. If there is low unemployment and people have high wages and money saved it will lead to low interest rates. This causes businesses to want to invest in capital equipment because labor is expensive and money is cheap. On the other hand if you have high unemployment, low wages, and low savings you will have a high interest rate. This leads businesses to hire people because it's more profitable. This is a natural balance of sustainable automation.

    What we have now is the Federal Reserve setting artificially low interest rates. This causes businesses to invest in automation at a time in which we have high unemployment, low wages, and low savings. This is exactly the wrong approach. It causes lots of malinvestment by automating production to increase capacity but nobody has enough money to buy these goods.

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Friday December 14, 2012 @09:18PM (#42297493)

    Should all exclusivity agreements be banned, then?

    If a company can sign an contract agreeing to use one specific supplier as their exclusive supplier of candlesticks, why can't it, instead, do the same in-house, and sign a contract agreeing to use people from one particular labor union as its exclusive supplier of candlestick-making employees?

  • by OneAhead ( 1495535 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:01PM (#42298227)

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

    Now you're sounding like the populist politicians and the bitter working-class people complaining in the pubs. What you need to do is show statistics indicating that your government's budget is being brought onto its knees by unemployment benefits. I'm not saying there exists no country for which this is the case, but I'm pretty sure it isn't the case for any of the Northern European countries I was talking about, contrary to pervasive public perception.

    You start at $0.00, and work for your money.

    In order for the system I was talking about to work, the unemployment benefits should be far enough below the minimum wage to motivate a large enough percentage of people to work (which means relatively high minimum wages). In practice, it is not that simple, and there will always be groups of exceptions. But this condition is largely fulfilled in most functioning welfare societies, again, despite pervasive public perception to the contrary. If you will argue that it isn't the case for your country, by all means, but please do provide a statistic. Keeping in mind that anecdotes are not a statistics; as I said, there will and should be groups of exceptions.

    Your "you start at $0.00" brings us to a fascinating (if somewhat offtopic) aspect of the discussion. There is a political fringe group in the European Union that argues that everyone should receive the same basic unemployment package, whether they work or not. The package would allow people to have a healthy life, but not much luxury (small dwellings, no car, not all the latest newest gadgets,...) If you want to bring some luxury into your life, get a job. Labor would be very cheap for the employer because they don't need to pay you a full wage, only the difference between the baseline and a more wealthy lifestyle. The government would get all the money to pay everyone's baseline from very high VAT. This VAT would apply to imported goods, but not to goods that are exported and sold on other markets, which again would make manufacturing very competitive. Now I haven't performed or encountered a full economic analysis of this scheme, and I'm taking these people's claims that the scheme is vetted by economists with a huge grain of salt. So I don't know what to make out of it, but here are a couple of random thoughts:
    - Very high VAT would spawn a flourishing black market. The economic force behind this black market may (or may not) be strong enough to make the whole scheme collapse.
    - Possibly a more feasible way to get the money would be a combination of VAT and tax on production. I strongly suspect a working combination would be a VAT rate close to present-day welfare states, and the remaining tax on production would make your industries just as competitive as present-day welfare states (not very competitive but hanging in there, that is). You're just swapping labor costs and tax on labor for tax on production, and the outcome would not be all that different.
    - The most interesting part of this cranky scheme comes in when one considers a future society with advanced AI and robotics, in which a lot of work can be done by robots. A large percentage of people would be unemployed; it seems logical to somehow pay them from the money made by factories that are largely human-free. Otherwise, what good is human-free production if nobody can buy the goods?
    - Hypothetical counterpoint: people will always find a way to offer a service that other people will want to pay for, and no amount of technological advancement will change that. Think of the massive entertainment industry, which was largely nonexistent (or at least way smaller) in pre-industrial society.

    Again I'm neither in favor or against this scheme, and I'm not sure of the truth value of all the above arguments. At this point, I just see it as a fascinating thought experiment. I guess I'll make up my mind once more information is available.</offtopic>

Happiness is twin floppies.