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International Socialist Review, Summer 1958


Robert Chester

Has the Machine Outstripped Us?


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, p.109.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Toward the Automatic Factory, A Case Study of Men and Machines
by Charles R. Walker
Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. 1957. 232 pp. $5.

The age of automation has brought us a new literature dealing with its impact on society. Toward the Automatic Factory, as part of this literature, confines itself to one narrow, limited aspect, the effect of automation on the men in the productive process.

The work is a close-up study of the hot-mill crews in the “first continuous seamless pipe mill in the United States” at the Lorain, Ohio, works of the National Tube Division of the US Steel Corporation, which began production in 1949. In this plant a crew of nine men turn out four times as much pipe as twenty-five men did previously. Interviews over a three-year period chronicle the changes in thinking of the men as management raised production.

The study is interesting although this is not a fully automated factory where all processes are self-controlled through feedback, but a transition stage, a semi-automatic mill where the flow of pipe is controlled by nine men stationed at strategic points. They are necessary to maintain the quality of pipe, thus must be constantly on the alert for hitches or breakdowns. The significant change is that they no longer work directly on the product. Whereas in the old mill they came home physically tired, now they are wrung by nervous fatigue.

The book analyzes the stages of adjustment of the men to their jobs until they become fused into a smooth-working group who “actually spend more time together than with our own family.” The author examines their relations with each other, with their foreman and supervisors, and with management whose “gains is so much greater than ours.” He presents their views on job security, upgrading, incentives and the impact of the new mill on other workers and the union. A rich case history emerges of how a unit of the working class achieves its class concepts and cohesion.

Charles R. Walker is the author of American City, a study of the great Minneapolis Strikes of 1934-35. Walker now confines his writing to sociological studies of the industrial scene. While socialists will find his latest book valuable for its facts, his main purpose seems to have been to indicate how management can introduce the latest technology with a minimum amount of opposition from the workers.

Workers naturally resist any step under the restrictive control of management that threatens their well-being, as is clearly shown in this study. Walker sums up his overall impression by concluding that “the machine here has outstripped man.” He has really demonstrated, however, that the productive system has outstripped its social base; for almost all the contradictions he records could be rapidly resolved under workers control of production.

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