Michael Kidron

The Robot Front

(August 1956)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 5 No. 11, August 1956, p. 7.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN HIS forthcoming pamphlet – Automation, The Socialist Answer – Michael Kidron shows that it is not only the workers facing the sack that have to watch automation warily. Those that retain their jobs under automation will have to fight every step of the way for decent conditions, as this extract shows. – Editor

One of the first things to guard against is mental fatigue as a result of speedup. This happens in every case of partial automation where, even if physical activity is at a minimum, the speed of reaction to signals and dials limits the speed of the machine. Constant tension and the fact that the operator may have to assimilate and act continuously on a heavy load of information quickly gives rise to “perceptual fatigue.”

The Tylak Story

A famous interview in the New York Post showed what this means to the individual worker:

Then there are workers who can’t keep up with automation. Such as Stanley Tylak. Tylak, 61 and for 27 years a job setter at Ford, was shifted from the River Rouge foundry machine shop to the new automated engine plant. He was given a chance to work at a big new automatic machine.

Simply, straightforwardly, he told his story:

‘The machine had about 80 drills and 22 blocks going through. You had to watch all the time. Every few minutes you had to watch to see everything was all right. And the machine had so many lights and switches – about ninety lights. It sure is hard on your mind.

‘If there’s a break in the machine, the whole line breaks down. But sometimes you make a little mistake, and it’s no good for you, no good for the foreman, no good for the company, no good for the union.’

And so Stanley Tylak, baffled by the machine he couldn’t keep up with, had to take another job – at lower pay.

Strain comes for other reasons, not only from overtaxing the worker with too many control functions. Two trade unionists who had been on an English Speaking Union tour of America reported that “they had heard of cases where so peculiar has been the atmosphere of the almost fully mechanized factory that some of the workers have had nervous breakdowns in a very short time” (Railway Review, January 20, 1956).

Joseph A. Beirne, President of the Communications Workers of America, showed how deep is the impact of the new working conditions.

“We know,” he told a Congress Sub-committee, “of cases where some workers have gotten sick on the steps of the new toll centre; others developed various illnesses which could be traced to fear of new work operations. We have been told of mature women crying in restrooms, improperly prepared for new methods and fearful of losing their jobs or being pressured, into unwanted, early retirement with inadequate pensions. The tragedy of the mature worker whose skill area suddenly disintegrates and is incorrectly retrained is profound.”

Shorter Work-Week

Mental and psychological stress of this nature will always be a feature of production as long as profits can be made out of overloading the individual worker with control operations, as long as retraining programmes are skimped and job-insecurity lasts. They are part of capitalism. But even within capitalism they can be alleviated by lessening the duration of strain, by cutting the work-week without loss of pay, by improving conditions within the plant.

Last updated on 16 February 2017