Michael Kidron

Automation – The New Industrial Revolution

Workers Must Control the Robot

(November 1955)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 5 No. 3, November 1955, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Automation in the hands of private capital is kindred to the atom bomb.”

“We must fight modern machines with modern negotiating power.”

“The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.”

These sentiments – the first two expressed by delegates to the second national conference of the Shop Stewards’ Liaison Committee for the Motor Industry held at Oxford two months ago, the last written by professor Norbert Wiener who did much to further and perfect automation – are not the sentiments of people blind to the staggering technical possibilities of automatic machinery. They are opinions of people who see the realities of its adoption under capitalism. They know that the first industrial revolution ushered in the 18-hour day and the exploitation of child-labour. That the introduction of mass production methods deepened the slump during the ’thirties. They feel that the same might happen again unless we are prepared for the new industrial techniques before they come. They are not wrong – the shoe has already begun to pinch.

Production Changes Cause Conflicts

Every change in production techniques is the signal for re-firing the struggle between workers and capitalists; each change upsets the firm arrangements reached through previous struggles, makes the situation fluid and the outcome uncertain. The bosses have the advantage of knowing what the new techniques entail; they have surveyed the battleground before the fight. The workers must do so too by demanding prior consultation.

One example will do. Three years ago new automatic machines were installed in Austin’s West Press Shop, Birmingham. There was no prior consultation with the shop-stewards concerned and the machines were installed without adequate safety devices. A notice reading “Warning: Unattended Machines at work” has proved insufficient to guard against accidents. Safety devices are still under negotiation. Austin workers have learned the need for prior consultation.

Prior consultation is not only necessary for ensuring protection. Rate-fixing is easier to arrange before the machines start production and while the bosses are nervous about the loss of time than afterwards. An illustration from ENV’s in London is instructive in this connection, although it has nothing to do with automation.

After experiencing speed-ups through retooling unaccompanied by an increase in wages, ENV shop stewards ruled that no retooled machines would be operated unless a week’s notice of the management’s intention had been given. They also forced management to accept the principle that the new jobs would be timed to give the same wages as the job it displaced plus a certain percentage as the worker’s share of the increased productivity caused by retooling.

Failing agreement on the price, the operator concerned would continue to receive average piece-work earnings while working the job, irrespective of his output. The eventual agreed price must be such as to enable the operator to earn more than he earned while working with the old method. ENV’s example should be copied.

Prior consultation between bosses, union officials and shop stewards is essential at the point of contact between the new machines and the workers. Prior consultation is the first step in workers’ control of automation and of industry. But it is not enough.

The new techniques are revolutionary. Besides creating the demand for new skills, they simplify and break down traditional ones, make manual labour infinitely lighter and transfer operations demanding skilled judgement from man to machine. All this tends to undermine the traditional division of labour within the factory and without. It is a state of flux which the bosses consider ideally suited for ‘dilution’, for replacing skilled men with unskilled or semi-skilled, for ousting relatively higher paid male labour with female labour. Shades of the First World War and its battle of dilution on the home front are stirring.

Organisation Is Key to Struggle

Automation is a god-send to the capitalists in yet another way. We know their love for piece-work. It tends to break down solidarity on the shop floor, it encourages competition between mates and offers the management countless opportunities to bribe individual workers.

Automation can be used for similar work. The automated shop will be granted all its specific demands prior consultation, skilled pay plus productivity bonus, training schemes waiting time and so on, while the unautomated shop will be left to carry the can of the traditionally bad conditions. After all, automation naturally strikes different shops at different times. We must see to it that it does not strike different workers at different times, knocking us out one by one.

In order to prevent the atomizing effect of automation, its use in the hands of the capitalists to break down workers solidarity, we must demand: no dilution but the rate for the job; no preference but the entire factory to benefit from increased productivity by better conditions and the entire working class by lower prices.

The bosses won’t take these demands lying down. They must be forced, and the only weapon the working class has is its organised strength. The organised bosses must be faced by the closed shop (no “nons” employed) in the factory and the industrial union (no inter-union squabbles) in the industry. The inactive card-holder must be brought into the struggle.

Employment Figures Tell a Story

If prior consultation is the first rudimentary step in taking over the factory, the closed shop and the industrial union are the first step in taking over the entire industry by the working class. But, before then, both are indispensable in fighting for conditions in the day to day struggle with capitalism.

The most dramatic effect of automation is on employment. So far we have felt nothing of it, but feel we will. One look at the figures will tell us why. Austin’s which used to roll out 2,000 cars a week, now produces 10,000, five times as much, with the same labour force. The American car industry produced the same number of cars in 1954 as in 1953 – but the number of production workers was less by 850,000. So far, the boom has kept us cosy; but the fear is there – what about the bust?

While employment is a “factor for the bosses, it is life for us. We must formulate policy now before the wave of unemployment drowns us. We must put forward the following demands both on Confed. level and the level of the factory floor: No sackings; shorter work week without loss of earnings, extended annual holiday with pay, to spread employment; if automation makes redundancy inevitable, retaining and retraining at the previous level of earnings and at the bosses’ expense.

Small Manufacturers Get Big Squeeze

These are short-term demands. They are nothing like even a partial solution. Some of them have been gained already. (At Shelley’s, producers of the Norton motor-cycle, for example, some of the men on piece-work managed to squeeze 2/9–3/– an hour “waiting time” for a short-working period). They can help in an individual factory for a limited period, but cannot help everywhere and always.

What happens, for example, when a factory does not lay off workers but closes down altogether? What with the enormous investments needed for automation and the lower costs resulting from it, the British motor industry is sure to go the way of its Big Brother in the US where automation has so squeezed the smaller manufacturers that a number of them have had to close down completely or in part. What happens then?

Big Bust Follows Big Boom

The big monopolies can afford to retain and retrain workers, if only for a short while; the smaller firms cannot. The monopolies can afford to increase costs by shortening the work-week, extending paid holidays giving a guaranteed annual wage, again for a limited period; the small firms cannot. Are we going to entrench where we can and let the exposed die of exposure? let the lucky ones employed by the Big Two or the Big Three or Four or Five rest secure while the rest rot in dole queues in a repetition of the unnatural selection of the ’thirties? No, we cannot have that.

Redundancy and unemployment are the results of capitalist competition. When each firm tries to capture the whole market by expanding output to supply the whole market, unsold stocks must pile up eventually, the bubbling boom must burst. The fall-out of the burst stretches as long as the dole queue.

In the face of widespread, deep unemployment we must extend our short-term demands to include the results of shut-downs. We must have work or full maintenance at the level of previous earnings; we must demand the re-opening of the shut down plants under workers’ control; their inclusion in a nationalized and coordinated industry as a prelude to the fully planned economy, under workers’ control.

Capitalism Unchanged by Automation

Automation does not change the nature of capitalism. It only makes capitalism more efficient, more ruthless and more torn with problems. The workers must meet automation – Capital’s new weapon – in the shop, in the factory, in the industry and in the economy, wherever worker and capitalist conflict – and that is everywhere.

Last updated on 16 February 2017