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Fourth International, Spring 1955


Harold Robins

Automation – Menace or Promise?

The Unions Face a Crucial Problem


From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.2, Spring 1955, pp.61-65.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A REVOLUTION in the method of production is taking place in American industry through introduction of automation. The tendency itself is not new. Karl Marx was familiar with it, calling the factory “in its most perfect form.” the “automatic factory.” [1] What is new is the extent to which automatic systems have been introduced on production lines, especially in the United States since the end of World War II.

In the production of atomic materials it is generally known that the lines are completely automated. No human being can handle radioactive products in any quantity or even come near them without fatal injury. This industry, consequently, began in 1942 on the basis of automation. The atomic industry, however, only holds the mirror of the future to other industries. A survey of some of the principal ones will show how about 13,000,000 workers are already being more and more directly affected by the deep inroads automation has made.


A report of the United Automobile Workers, CIO [2], has the following to say:

“Although the Ford Motor Co. has received a good deal of publicity about its automated plants, it is not alone in its modernizing efforts. GM, Chrysler, and the independent producers are installing similar machinery ... it is clear that industry lias embarked on a full scale program of automation. Each company is contesting with the next to see how fast it can automate its plant and thereby reduce its unit labor costs. The changes in effect, and those yet to come, require that the union give careful attention to manpower displacement problems.”

The UAW’s conclusion is generally correct. The key is in the following statement: “... one man will do at least the work now done by five men.” This may sound like the panicky statement of an alarmist. If anything, however, it is a conservative estimate. It was supported by such illustrations as an automatic machining unit at Nash Motors that reduced man hours by 80% and by the statement of a Ford spokesman that direct labor has been reduced by 25-30%.

Actually in given units, the change – a change pointing to the future for the whole industry – is much greater. Mill and Factory for December 1953 reported that Buick had introduced two automatic engine-head production lines and two engine cylinder-block lines on which every bit of machining was completely automatic, eliminating every single production worker.

A Ford spokesman, commenting on the installations at Cleveland and River Rouge, said that the entire cost of the Cleveland modernization would be returned in the first year in labor “savings.”

A Buick representative boasted that one machine costing about $350,000 had replaced 17 machines on the production line. The labor “savings” from the production workers displaced along with the 17 machines would no doubt easily repay the cost of the new equipment within a year.

Iron Age reported August 12, 1954, that Buick had a fully automated foundry for producing cylinder blocks, cylinder heads, valve guides, etc. The November 1, 1954, Automotive Industry described Packard’s new engine plant at Utica, Mich., as having fully automatic engine-head and engine-block lines. A single operator is required at the control panel. No production workers are needed at all. The installation is said to have cost more than $20,000,000. Its capacity is rated at 50 engine heads and blocks an hour.

De Soto, Pontiac and other companies have installed similar production lines. In making Chevrolet V-8 engines, one worker stands by each of some 18 machines for tool changes. Other machining operations too, from GM roller-bearing production to radiator caps and bumpers, have completely eliminated production workers.

General Motors reports that it spent $750,000,000 for modernization last year and plans to spend at least another $500,000,000 in its US plants this year. In Britain GM plans to spend $100,000,000 in the next five years for automation. In Germany GM has already spent $100,000,000 and is slated to spend another $71,000,000 for modernization. Realization of GM’s plans will make possible a 15% increase in overall production within a year and a half (spring of 1954 to fall of 1955). Figures on how many workers will be displaced at the same time are not given.

Chrysler borrowed $250,000,000 from Prudential Life Insurance Co. to finance a change-over. Ford is reported to have spent $600,000,000 for its huge re-equipment costs. And in England Ford has a five-year plan calling for the expenditure of $181,000,000.

The same logic that operated in Marx’s time indicates that the competition in production line changes in auto must spread to other branches of industry, must challenge every large producer to do likewise or die.

Will the auto workers perhaps find jobs through the expansion of total production, or in maintenance of equipment :as the new technology spreads throughout the industry? It is true that some of the companies are calling up displaced workers for other, non-automated jobs. Yet at the same time they are crowding a year’s production into roughly half a year. That fact alone spells out how permanent the new jobs will be.

As for the creation of new jobs, the new machinery generally requires less servicing than older equipment. But we need not depend on impressions as to how many workers can find such jobs. A typical plant will show what is involved. Ford’s Cleveland plant has a “guestimated” capacity of half a million engines a year. According to Mill and Factory (October 1953) a labor force of 500 men is required. About 100 of them are cleaners and sweepers. About 50 are carpenters and millwrights. The balance is made up of lubrication and hydraulic specialists, machinists and toolmakers, pipefitters, electricians and electronic technicians. The only labor shortage Ford ran into was electronic technicians. Ford hired electricians and schooled and trained them on the job and after work.

Iron and Steel

The continuous rolling mill has been an automated set-up for more than 20 years. That process shapes cast ingots into rolled sheets, strips and bars. Despite this highly developed technique, the industry employed almost 800,000 production workers in blast furnaces, steel works, iron and Steel foundries as well as rolling mills.

Iron Age, in its March 4, 1953, issue tells about a new mill built by the Great Lakes Steel Corp. near Detroit. An automatic process was introduced in the slabbing mill, scarfing unit and soaking pit. All production workers were replaced by automatic mechanisms. A chief operator and assistant sit in an air-conditioned pulpit controlling the entire works.

In 1954 US Steel opened a new mill at Morristown, Pa., reportedly the most modern in the industry. As yet no details have appeared as to its production methods or the number of workers that will be displaced in other, less modern mills. The previous example, however, gives us an indication of the enormous productivity of a handful of workers using automated ‘equipment.

The September 24, 1953, Iron Age informs us that Atlas Steel of Canada opened a new continuous casting mill that “... threatens change in steel-maiking methods ... eliminates the need for all ingot casting and stripping equipment except the ladle crane ... Conventional steelmaking generates about 25-30% scrap.” The new mill reduced scrap to 3-10%, according to the same source November 4, 1954.

“Overall cash savings ... are figured at 3 cents per pound for stainless, 8 cents per pound for valve steel, 20 cents per pound for high speed steel.” “There is less equipment to maintain ...”

The report indicates that continuous casting eliminated the “need for all ingot casting and stripping equipment, soaking pits and blooming mills which are the largest and most expensive units in conventional steel mills.”

A new automated molding plant is reported in operation at Cleveland. Owned by the Eberhardt Mfg. Co., the new unit is said to take only one-fourth the floor space required by other processes for the same production. According to the November 4, 1954, Iron Age, it performs 12 operations, among them, molding, closing, clamping, cooling, stripping and shake-out. It is a package unit laid out in multiples of flask length. Controls are electrical and pneumatic and operate in conjunction with cycle time. The number of production workers eliminated by any of these changes is not given.

The manufacture of steel pipe and tubing has become automatic. Iron Age, July 16, 1953, reports that Pittsburgh Steel opened a new plant to make casings for oil pipe lines automatically. This put the company in position to compete with Colorado Fuel and Iron, Republic Steel and the Lone Star Steel Co.

In this way the steel industry is attempting to batter its position in the world steel market. They are well aware that in the fight for a narrowing market whoever doesn’t automate will be automated out of business.

Machine Tools

On January 3 of this year, (the New York Herald Tribune reported that the machine tool industry faces the pleasant prospect of big sales because “New machine tools offer greater opportunities than ever for speedier production and more fully automatic operations.”

Iron Age, however, reported in November of last year that at the Leipzig Fair in East Germany the machine tool industry there made significant dents in the markets of “Central American countries, the Near East, Indonesia, and Japan.” The East German factories, it seems, buy the latest automatic machines from Western Europe. With these set up on automated lines they manufacture “old look” (about 1948 model) lathes and other machine tools of fine construction, low price and easy credit terms that cannot be matched anywhere. (The same report states that the balance of trade between East Germany and West Germany has now been brought into balance – by the export from East Germany of cheap hardware – probably produced on automatic production lines.)

Tremendous orders were placed with the US machine tool industry in 1953-54 ($1,100,000,000 in 1953 and $900,000,000 in 1954), but the end of 1954. saw a slackening off. However, an upswing now seems to have occurred in the section turning out automatic machinery, which is good news for them but bad news for those turning out standard equipment. They must now compete with a flood of second-hand equipment displaced by automated set-ups.

Oil and Pipelines

The UAW-CIO Report on Automation states that in the petroleum industry, according to an unnamed spokesman of the industry, “The average refinery which would employ 800 people without instrumentation would employ 12 people were instrumentation utilized to the fullest extent possible.”

R.T. Neuschel, writing in the January 1953 Mill and Factory, says:

“More and more industries are becoming increasingly mechanized. Process industries (chemicals and oils) were among the first to show this trend. As an example today, almost half the employees in some petroleum refineries are engaged in keeping the vast network of mechanical equipment in good working order.”

Neuschel says tersely of the scope of automatic machine processes in other fields:

“Fabricating industries are following the same trend. Mechanization of manufacturing processes is on the upswing in metals, plastic moulding, textiles, to name a few. Even in the distribution field there is a growing trend toward mechanization.”

According to Instruments and Automation, “Pipeline instrumentation is expanding – including automatic pumping stations operated by microwave and telephone line telemetering. Radioactive isotopes are being used for locating batches in stream ...”

The relatively new pipeline industry is rated as sixth largest in terms of capital investment. It maintains 167 storage fields (generally exhausted petroleum fields) for storage of natural gas. At distribution pionts workers control the flow of products to trucks, railroad cars and tanks by push-button methods. Fleets of light airplanes inspect the vast lines that reach every section of the country except the Columbia River Valley. (Gas is due there next year from Canada and the San Juan Basin in Arizona.)

In the closely related petrochemical industry, 80% of which is located in the South, the investment per worker now runs from $20,000 to $30,000 according to the Southern Association of Science and Industry. Most of the big oil companies have entered into competition with independent chemical plants. The large rubber, steel, paper and other corporations are also in the field. Petrochemicals make up about 25% of the chemical industries’ $20,000,000,000 in sales.

The January 3 New York Times reported that the average investment per worker in the chemical industry “now exceeds $25,000 and may run four times that much in certain new, highly mechanized plants.” How high productivity is in the chemical industry can be gauged from the fact that behind the $20,000,000,000 in products stands only 527,000 production workers, according to the Times. (“The industry provides direct employment to about 780,000 persons,” says the same source.)


The effect of automation in the electronics industry is particularly dramatic since up until very recently manufacturing was done by hand methods of assembly construction. Expansion under such relatively primitive methods could occur only by employing more workers and using more space.

The federal government financed the research that finally made possible electronic-stage manufacture where the product is assembled like a Tinkertoy set, the kind used by youngsters to build derricks, bridges, houses, etc. After three years of research, Mill and Factory reports, November 1953, that a process of printing electronic circuits on a ceramic wafer was developed. Other components, too, are printed and automatically assembled by machine soldering instead of the older hand methods. Resistors, capacitors and coils are printed by the new process. Inspection of every circuit is automatic. The result is better units that stand more strain and cost considerably less. The press turns out about 2,800 wafers an hour. (It too is automatic of course.) With this new process, “circuits may be developed to amplify signals, generate and shape wave forms, scale count, and perform customary electronic functions.”

The UAW Report on Automation states that “... a radio assembly line geared to produce 1,000 radios a day requires only two workers. Hand assembly lines it replaced required 200 workers.”

At the CIO Convention last December Reuther mentioned a machine that turns out 90,000 electric light bulbs a day.

T.J. Watson, Jr., president of International Business Machines Corp., was quoted by the New York Herald Tribune, January 16, as declaring: “Machines are being made that have thousands of times the speed of machines only ten years ago, and there appears to be almost no limit to the possibilities of electronics as applied to the American business office.”


A brief review of changes in the coal industry, printed in Reader’s Digest last December, indicates that the coal miners of the 1950s, displaced by mechanization like those of the 1920s, will continue to migrate in search of jobs. But unlike the 300,000 miners of the previous generation, the present generation will not find many jobs. Today all the basic mass production industries, as well as agriculture, are increasing productivity and at the same time cutting the size of the labor force.

To strip the ground away from coal seams in Pennsylvania, the Hanna Coal Co. has built a 1,700 ton derrick and ordered another one of 2,800 tons. This machine will have a capacity bite of some 10 tons.

Remote-control mining equipment in West Virginia produces six times the national average production per man. (This average includes high-production strip mines.) The result is coal delivered at $5 a ton in Charleston, W.Va.

A coal pipeline is under construction from western Pennsylvania to Cleveland. It will deliver coal at a cost saving of $1.25 a ton. Iron Age (April 29, 1954) reports other lines are now being planned.


The January 3 New York Herald Tribune reports that “push-button freight yards, centralized traffic control, and even electronic brains in the accounting office” are new features being introduced in the railroad industry. Electronic “brains” rent for $13,000 to $40,000 a month (IBM rates) and are tremendous payroll savers. As a matter of fact, these more than human “intelligence” machines are operated by ordinary humans who, it seems, unlike the machines, expect wages.

This sampling of various industries should be sufficient to indicate the impact of automation. The use of automatic machinery may not be as all-inclusive in many industries as in atomic production but it is affecting virtually all to one degree or another and the logic of its development is clear enough. A few additional facts will indicate how widespread it is becoming:

Western Union has introduced a nationwide automatic switching system. Saw mills and paper mills are going in for automation. Bottles coming from automatic bottling machines are automatically placed in cartons. The Roman Cleanser Co. formerly employed nine men to stack filled cartons coming off a conveyor line. This is now done by a machine – and with less breakage.

The painter in factories is being replaced by machines. Studebaker reports introduction of automatic spraying of the prime coat. This eliminates all sprayers and water sanders who formerly rubbed down the prime coat. According to the January 15 Automotive Industries, all painting on new Chryslers is completely automatic.

Ward’s Automotive Report, cited by the UAW-CIO Report on Automation, reveals that a “passenger car plant which formerly employed 36 men to feed fenders into a conveyor for spray painting, now has modernized equipment which automatically feeds six sets of fenders to a fast merry-go-round where various colored finishes are applied simultaneously.”

Richer Living?

Capitalist propagandists hail the promise of automation but give little consideration to the tragic consequences for working people thrown out of jobs. An example is the article by Wm. F. Freeman in the January 3 New York Times. The headline declares, “Automation Aims at New Freedom” and the subhead adds, “Devices that Run Factories Promise to Release Men for Richer Living.”

That would be good news if it were true. However, although the Times boasts that it gives “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it did not see fit to print any proof of this optimistic forecast for automation. It did not even admit that it is the drive for profits that impels the use of more and more automatic machinery. Instead it is introduced “to the end of freeing workers from drudgery, monotony and fatigue of repetitive work, of reducing worker hazards, of opening the avenue to more important and better paying jobs and of improving the quality and uniformity of product.”

An industry spokesman quoted by Fortune magazine (cited in the UAW-CIO Report on Automation) was more honest when he confessed: “I don’t think we are consciously trying to ease the burden of our workers, nor consciously trying to improve their standard of living. These changes take care of themselves.”

A Union Problem

The union bureaucracy has shown some signs of alarm at the development of automation. The UAW-CIO Report on Automation, with its displacement figure of four out of five workers is a case in point. But the program proposed up to now to meet the problems arising from the revolution in technique now sweeping industry at truly American speed leaves much to be desired.

The report speaks of re-training displaced men at company expense for other jobs in auto. The re-training proposal is excellent – if it is actually fought for; but just what “other” jobs will be available remains a mystery. They could be created by establishing a much shorter work week and thus spreading the available employment. But that is not Reuther’s program. [3]

The report also demands that the government help re-train the displaced men for other jobs. Another excellent proposal – if fought for. How much of a fight is required can be gathered from the fact that the government is unwilling to provide adequate schooling even for children. According to the National Citizens Commission for Public Schools, America is falling behind its growing population by some 67,000 classrooms a year. (New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1954.)

The Report on Automation takes as its major demand the so-called “Guaranteed Annual Wage.” If the full demand were won, and if it were applied retroactively so as to cover displaced workers, it would provide the cushion of one year’s severance pay. Reuther’s record, however, leads one to doubt that any promise of militant struggle under his guidance is worth a great deal.

A test of his willingness and capacity to fight is provided by the threat automation presents to the entire bracket of older workers with high seniority who are approaching the retirement age of sixty-five when company-financed pensions will be due. If these workers can be dumped before then by introducing automatic processes, the companies stand to make a sizable saving, a consideration of which they are quite conscious. The “Report on Automation” admits that in the new automated plants preference in hiring is given to younger workers. The youth, too, must have jobs; but if Reuther were seriously concerned about placing the older workers shouldn’t he be concerned about their senior right to work where automation is going, into effect today?

Another point in Reuther’s “solution” is the “Annual Improvement Factor.” “The immense productivity gains of automation should be assessed and then shared equally by all workers in coming negotiations,” says the Report on Automation.

Good. The workers should share in the benefits of automation. But two considerations are sufficient to judge ‘the worth of Reuther’s “solution.”

  1. The strength of a union is based on the members it has in the plants. This is steadily being cut down by automation.
  2. Under the Reuther program, the four out of five displaced from their jobs have a dim chance to share “equally” in anything but a search for jobs.

To these displaced workers Reuther really has nothing to offer, unless an invitation to support the Democratic Party can be considered an “offer.” And what does the Democratic Party promise beyond meager unemployment insurance and relief handouts? What happens to the standard of living of the displaced workers as automation cuts deeper and deeper? And with the fierce competition for jobs sure to follow, even those on the automatic production lines will find their standard of living dangerously threatened.

It should be evident that the problem of automation, as it affects the working class, demands a far-reaching solution, one that can be carried out in the final analysis only on the political level, for it involves much more than the worker-capitalist relation in this or that corporation or even industry. It concerns the working class as a whole in its relation to the entire productive system and the capitalist class in America. To effectively struggle for their interests on such a scale, the workers must turn to independent political action. That means formation of a fighting Labor Party, one of whose first tasks must be to draw up a program that approaches automation as a national problem requiring the whole power of government to be brought to bear in protecting the worker as he becomes displaced by the machine he created.

Beyond that, of course, looms the still bigger problem – how to convert automation into a positive benefit for the working class so that the leisure and freedom from drudgery it promises is converted into a reality and not allowed to fade like a mirage. That can be accomplished only under socialism, under a scientifically planned economy. Automation gives fresh urgency to consideration of the socialist solution in America.


1. See his illuminating analysis of the evolution of automatic machinery and factory and its effect on the working class in Machinery and Modern Industry, Capital, pp. 405-556. Kerr edition.

2. Report on Automation, delivered at the Economic and Collective Bargaining Conference, Nov. 12-14, 1954.

3. The attitude of the auto barons on this question may shed some light on Reuther’s position. For instance, Harlow H. Curtice, President of General Motors, “explained that he is a definite opponent of the 35-hour week.” (See In Europe, too, He Found the Future BRIGHT. Issued by General Motors Department of Public Relations.)

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