Yes to automation, under workers' control

Submitted by AWL on 18 August, 2015 - 5:17 Author: Martin Thomas

Bruce Robinson replies to me on automation (Solidarity 372) that he opposes, not all automation or sidelining of traditional skills, but automation of complex and skilled processes (as in the chemical industry) and driverless vehicles.

I’ve spent most of the last week or so at a picket line outside a container terminal in the port of Brisbane. The terminal we’ve been picketing has driverless vehicles (automated stacking cranes) which run on rails; the next-door terminal, just over a fence, has driverless vehicles without rails (automated straddle carriers). I’ve heard from miners on the picket lines that mines in Australia increasingly have driverless trucks.

Plainly the software used to guide the vehicles has to be good; and there are battles to be fought over job losses and retention of union coverage. But the workers and the union are not opposed to driverless vehicles as such, and I think they are right about that.

According to a report by Lloyds List Intelligence, in traditional dock work “physically demanding work conditions led to workers routinely suffering accidents and sustaining personal injuries”. “Reports by the US Department of Labor from 1940–1950 [showed] it as the most dangerous form of labour in the United States”.

Safety depends on union organisation as well as technology. The Lloyds List Intelligence report finds that injuries spiked again after the National Dock Labour Scheme was abolished in Britain in 1989 and the ports were re-casualised. But automation or semi-automation has made it easier for unions to win safe conditions. The report finds that injuries in US ports decreased by 90% between 1984 and 2006.

Other hazards in traditional dock work including “inhaling dust [from] bulk cargoes... long-term breathing disorders... asbestos, poisons, acids, and fertilisers”. With containerisation and modern bulk-terminal technology, impossible without some degree of automation, it is much easier for unions to limit those risks.

This is not the sort of case where Bruce thinks automation ok, where “there [was] little skill to start with and the worker already function[ed] almost as an extension of the machine”. Being able to handle cargoes manually was not at all being an extension of a machine, and surely required more skill than driving a car. Being a dockworker in a modern container terminal requires more varied skills again. Some have engineering degrees.

Equally, to do calculations on an abacus required more hands-on skill than using times tables, and to do them on a slide rule, more dexterity than using a calculator. It does not follow that we should eschew computers, calculators, or times tables — and the new skills that accompany them — for the sake of protecting the old manual skills.

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