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Fourth International, Winter 1956


Robert Chester

Labor Leaders on Automation


From Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, p.34.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Challenge of Automation
Papers delivered at the National Conference on Automation
Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C. 77 pp. $2.

On April 14, 1955 the National Conference on Automation convened in Washington under the auspices of the CIO Committee on Economic Policy. The major purpose of the conference, as revealed in the speeches, was to build up the pressure for a Congressional investigation of the impact of automation on the economy.

Invited to present papers were Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney, John Diebold, editor of the magazine Automatic Control, Donald Campbell of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Walter S. Buckingham Jr., Associate Professor of Industrial Management of Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to these papers the book contains the addresses of Walter Reuther and six other CIO union officials.

Significantly absent were any spokesmen of industry. As a result the book is one-sided in its expression of the different views on automation. However, the book is of value as a record of the views of the labor leaders.

Heads of represented unions – auto, steel, electrical products and telephone – give the facts on the effects of automation in their industries. Some of it is striking. Walter Reuther reported that

“Already obsolete are those auto plants that can turn out a complete engine block, fully machined, in 15 minutes. They are obsolete because there are plans on the drawing board to do the same job in 10 minutes with not a human hand touching it.”

James Carey of the International Union of Electrical Workers described an “Autofab” machine that will “assemble in a little more than a minute the same number of multiple-part electronic units that it now takes a worker a full day to assemble.”

All the labor spokesmen indicated fear of the effect of automation on jobs. They posed a series of demands – not to answer the basic problem – but only to ease the immediate shock. Reuther admits that his demand for a Guaranteed Annual Wage was designed to tide the worker over his first period of technological displacement.

“... it will mean, when automation does replace a worker, that during the period of his guarantee, he can be retrained and go through tihe process of being relocated without the impact of unemployment being a burden on him and his family.”

All the viewpoints – those of Senators, technical experts, economists and labor leaders – begin from the same major premise: that capitalism can solve the problems posed by automation “if properly handled.” “We can prove it not by pious declarations,” Reuther said, “but by working together ...” All that is necessary they held is, to promote adequate government regulation.

The utopian nature of Reuther’s stand was underlined by the Senate-House Economic Subcommittee Report hearings held in Washington in Oct. 1955. There the spokesmen for the National Association of Manufacturers demanded no interference by the government in Big Business use of automation. Despite the plaintive protests of Reuther and his cohorts, the Subcommittee Report issued on Dec. 11 stated: “... no specific broad-gauge economic legislation appears to be called for.”

Throughout the entire CIO conference the fact that stood out clearly was that no one, in industry, government or labor had any definite predictions on the effects of automation. As long as they begin from the premise that the interests of labor and industry are in common, and that the government stands over them as an impartial administrator, they can not even begin to analyze the real impact of automation. Only a class analysis, beginning from the opposing interests of the working class and capitalists, can do this.

The conclusion that arises from reading this book is that when a real analysis of automation will be made it will be done by a Marxist.

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Last updated on: 6 April 2009