Could I jut share a parallel experience. Though Australian by birth, I went
through this period as a negotiator for ASTMS representing technicians at
North-East London Poly, alongside NALGO representing the admin staff. We
took the line that new technology was our trade so we were not demanding
anything in return for introducing new technology; NALGO on the other hand
were hanging out for all sorts of concessions before agreeing to
introducing "word processors" (remember them!) into the offices. In the
meantime, all these machines were in their boxes locked up in cupboards.
Over time, the NALGO members simply broke open the boxes, set up the
machines, taught themselves and got on with it without any special benefits
and without telling their union reps (who were of course not listening
anyway!). In the end NALGO got nothing for their members because their
members were looking out for their lifestyle and future and not waiting for
any agreement. Those who didn't were eventually made redundant.
> Thanks so much for this, Steve! A story might be relevant. One of
> the experiences that set me on this path in my research dates to my time
> as a researcher in France in the late 1970s. At the time, important
> sectors of the union movement were developing a critique of the
> capitalist division of labor very much along the neo-Marxist lines my
> paper describes. (Braverman was a common reference. Similar arguments
> were heard on the left wing of the union movements in Germany, Italy, and
> the UK.) Since the French unions were rather strong in the service
> sector, we heard a lot from them about how computerization (under
> capitalism) inevitably led to a deskilling of office jobs, just as it had
> led to the deskilling of factory jobs.
> I recall vividly the frustration with this analysis that was
> expressed by union activists I knew in the insurance industry. These
> activists felt that the progressive wing of the union movement was
> totally discrediting itself with this deskilling analysis, since everyone
> who actually worked in the insurance industry had already concluded that
> computerization was having a hugely positive effect on most workers'
> well-being: eliminating a lot of truly mind-numbing
> form-filling-and-filing jobs, and encouraging the emergence of broader,
> "case management" job-designs where a single worker could handle many
> facets of a client's problem rather than passing it along the
> office-world equivalent of an assembly-line for processing by a series of
> ultra-specialized office workers. Yes, there was a risk of some
> relatively low-skilled workers losing their jobs, and even some highly
> skilled positions might be lost or "restructured," but these represented
> but a small number in comparison with the much larger number of workers
> for whom technological change and the associated work reorganization was
> largely positive.
> I was struck then that the unions -- esp. the most progressive
> ones -- were incapable of articulating a "progressive" position that
> simultaneously embraced the positive effects of (capitalist) automation
> on the majority of workers and defended the rights of the minority of
> workers who were "losers" in this automation process (rights to
> retraining and reemployment, for example). If workers are going to become
> the "leading force" in society, and if unions are going to play a role in
> that, then surely unions will need to articulate some such "progressive"
> line. To date, I have found very few unions capable of doing that.
> Perhaps the best of those I've studied are the Australian unions in the
> 1980s. (See Max Ogden's chapter in a collection I edited: Technology and
> the Future of Work, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.)
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