Michael Kidron

Robot Speedup

From a Forthcoming Pamphlet

(July 1956)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 5 No. 10, July 1956, p. 6.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Automation, according to an acknowledged expert on the subject, “provides the answer to the human problem of machine pacing and subordination of the worker to the machine.” So it does when there is full automation. But where automation is partially applied pace setting becomes even worse than before.

Automation integrates the whole plant into one continuous process. “The rate of output will be decided by managements on technical grounds, and it will be controlled by technicians rather than operators,” write the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research in their official publication on the subject. Where there are gaps in automation, for example where an operator does repetitive work between two automatic machines which require work to be removed and fed at fixed intervals, the operator must work at the pace set by the whole line.

Same Old Problem

This problem exists in any production line. “But in an automatic factory,” says Diebold, the expert quoted above, “the synchronization of the machines and of the machine output is critical. For an automatic factory it is vital that a continual and uninterrupted rate of progress be established and sustained.”

Machines Crack the Whip

We have experience of what this means in practice. In the Ford plant at Dagenham, Essex, “the operator on a transfer-line is usually paid in the same way as other semi-skilled men” but, says the DSIR publication, he “has more to think about than the operator of an individual machine-tool. His actions are more varied and continuous; he may cover more ground, has more points to watch, and must react more promptly.”

But automation does not only mean speed-up by the way. It is used consciously to cut down waiting time even where conventional machines are used. The Potter Instrument Company in the US recently announced the production of a small computer that can be attached to any machine. “Used to study frequency-changing combinations of automatic machine cycles,” states the announcement, “it calculates the production on each machine of a group and the waiting time during which the operator is not loading any machine.” Stripped of the technical jargon, it means that speeds and piece-rates would have to be argued with an electronic brain instead of with human management snoops.

Seven Minutes Saved

Nothing as mass produced has appeared yet in this country but Brook Motors Ltd., of Huddersfield, have installed a device in their Barugh Green plant near Barnsley called ‘the Brain’. It “is operated by one girl and yet controls about 250 women workers.”

“Under the old system,” states a report in the January issue of Automation Age, “... when a winder has finished a job, she had to report to the production control office and wait an average of seven minutes before she could be provided with the materials required for the next job.

“Now there is no waiting. When one of the 250 winders has finished a job, a red flash appears on the panel of ‘the Brain’, which is being controlled by a girl, the girl passes an order and presses a button for a green light to appear ...”

And the materials are delivered instantly. The boss has saved seven minutes; the workers have sweated a little more.

Factory-Wide Bargaining

As pace-setting becomes more and more a function for the plant engineers who can, because of the integration of the whole plant into one continuous process, determine the rhythm of work in the entire factory, the individual worker becomes less and less able to set his own work-pace. Even the single shop or section loses its power to adjust speeds. Speeds become a factory affair which must be made subject to factory-wide bargaining between workers and management.

Workers’ Control

In this, American workers have had more experience than we. They have also made greater gains than we have. In an epic 22-week strike at Westinghouse on the issue of piece-work and production standards, the International Union of Electrical Workers broke the management’s prerogative to decide unilaterally that each worker must produce a given number of pieces a day or face suspension or the sack. Since March, 1956, all disputed piece rates and speeds have been the subject of arbitration by the union.

Although this is not complete workers’ control of speeds it is a step towards it. It shows the way to workers’ control of production. It is an essential first defence against capitalist automation.

We must have full workers’ control of speeds.

Last updated on 16 February 2017