Home > Uncategorized > “We’ve got the robots”

“We’ve got the robots”

from David Ruccio

Chico Harlan [ht: ja] describes the arrival of the first robots at Tenere Inc. in Dresser, Wisconsin:

TDCz5kUDUAAAeTl6he workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”

“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

Tenere is just one of many factories and offices in which employers, in the United States and around the world, are installing robots and other forms of automation in order to boost their profits. 


They’re not doing it because there’s any kind of labor shortage. If there were, wages would be rising—and they’re not. Real weekly earnings for full-time workers (the blue line in the chart) increased only 2.3 percent on an annual basis in the most recent quarter. Sure, they complain about a shortage of skilled workers but employers clearly aren’t being compelled to raise wages to attract new workers. As a result, the wage share in the United States (the red line) continues to decline on a long-term basis, falling from 51.5 percent in 1970 to 43 percent last year (only slightly higher than it was, at 42.2 percent, in 2013).

No, they’re using robots in order to compete with other businesses in their industry, by boosting the productivity of their own workers to undercut their competition and capture additional surplus-value.

And they can do so because robots have become much more affordable:

No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

So, where does that leave us?

The prevalent response has been to worry about mass unemployment. However, as I explained a month ago, I don’t think that’s the issue, at least at the macro level.

If workers are displaced from their jobs in one plant or sector, they can’t just remain unemployed. They have to find jobs elsewhere, often at lower wages than their earned before. That’s how capitalism works.

Much the same holds for workers who don’t lose their jobs but who, as new technologies are adopted by their employers, are deskilled and otherwise become appendages of the new machines. They can’t just quit. They remain on the job, even as their working conditions deteriorate and the value of their ability to work falls—and their employers’ profits rise.

No, the real problem is how the gains from the introduction of robots and other new technologies are being unevenly distributed.

And that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of new, labor-saving technologies.

In fact, Lewis’s argument was that machinery should replace hand work in the mines, which would serve to both ease the burden of miners’ work increase their wages—all under the watchful eye of their union. And mine-owners who attempted to pay workers less, without technological improvements, should be driven out of business.

Mr. Lewis called upon the miners to accept machinery, since they could not turn back the clock, but to demand a fair share of the benefits of mechanization in the form of shorter hours and increased compensation. He said that machines must be made the workingman’s ally, and that nothing was to be gained by fighting them.

The fact is, right now workers are not getting “a fair share of the benefits of mechanization,” whether in the form of shorter hours or increased compensation.

And if employers are not willing to provide those benefits, workers themselves should be given a say in what kinds of robots and other new technologies will be introduced, what their working hours will be, and how much they will be compensated.

Only then will workers be able to confidently say, “we’ve got the robots.”

  1. M. Selkirk
    August 12, 2017 at 12:53 am

    I disagree that mechanization is as limited as described here. Today it may be common for lower skilled jobs to be mechanized, leaving higher-skilled ones to humans. But this may only be temporary. Technology is inexorable and has only begun to duplicate human functioning. The ratio of machine-to-human labor can only increase from this point.

    There is no question about the unfairness of the distribution of profits — from robots as well as from elsewhere. But redistributing them to other workers is an incomplete solution. For one thing, it leaves out the unemployed — including those very people whose jobs were mechanized away. Nor can we depend on other jobs always to arise for those displaced, given the increasing proportion of machines in the workplace. The normal rules of the ‘labor market’ no longer apply.

    What’s at stake here is nothing less than the need to rethink the fundamental principle that each person or family is to be responsible for earning its own livelihood through work. As labor becomes more robotized, this principle becomes less and less within the reach of the average person.

    We need instead to look to make very deep changes to the structure of our economy — in particular, to find rules of production, and of the distribution of wealth, more at the societal level, and less at the individual one. This points to a much increased role for government.

  2. August 12, 2017 at 2:01 am

    It’s tough to form a militant union concentrating on human rights when powerful brainwashing techniques are being applied for civilian morale management.

  3. August 12, 2017 at 4:07 am

    This is why we need something like 20/20/20 for 2020. 20% tariffs to prevent capital flight, followed by a 20% revenue tax on any company with a greater than 20 ratio between highest paid and lowest paid including subsidiaries and captive suppliers. This solves the problem in much the same way that adjusting the nobs in the shower solve the problem of the temperature being wrong. Adjust these numbers up whenever inequality gets too high and adjust down if we instead have the problem of society becoming too equal (meaning motivation to work drops).

  4. Ron Goldring
    August 12, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    A new set of paradigms is required:
    1. Putting people in the center: People should no longer be considered as just “consumers” and “workers”. People live. They have needs (hence they need money and free time). They can and want to contribute to society (hence they work). Some people cannot work, but we still want them to live.
    2. Understanding that any technological advancement is the result of efforts made over many generations by myriads of men and women – by past and present humanity as a whole. Thus, humanity’s present and future generations should all benefit from these advances.
    3. Restraining inequality is a must if we want to survive. The present trend of exponentially growing inequality is not sustainable. If left to itself, this burgeoning plot will snap at some point in (not so distant) time with violent outbursts.
    4. People must have more free time. Many forms of work are being, or will be (in the near future) by more efficient robots and software. The only kinds of work that cannot be replaced are personal services (education, medical services, leisure services such as tourism, restaurants, popular sport activities, etc.). Taking part in any of these activities requires not only money – also free time. One can have a robot order a new shirt or smartphone at a web site, almost without spending time on these transactions. This is not true for enrolling to a swimming class (no robot will swim for you!) or talking painting lessons.

    I am sure readers will be able to add some more paradigms.
    However: Current Economics – as theorized and as practiced does not support these paradigms. There is no “accounting for value” being used in the process of budgeting. The relentless drive for “efficiency” does not address what is needed for allowing people to enjoy their free time activities. Tying people’s income only to some “marginal cost and utility” of a firm means, that ordinary people would not have the resources to enjoy any leisure activity.

    The entire edifice of Economics should be rebuilt.

  5. August 13, 2017 at 6:50 am

    Mark Steyn usually writes crap. But occasionally he stumbles onto something important. In his book, “After America: Get Ready for Armageddon,” he writes, “Once upon a time, millions of Americans worked on farms. Then, as agriculture declined, they moved into the factories. When manufacturing was outsourced, they settled into low-paying service jobs or better-paying cubicle jobs — so-called “professional services” often deriving from the ever swelling accounting and legal administration that now attends almost any activity in America. What comes next? Or, more to the point, what if there is no “next”?”

    Good catch and then he screws it up. “What do millions of people do in a world in which, in Marxian terms, “capital” no longer needs “labor”? Rather, I believe the issue is what happens as labor begins to realize it doesn’t need capital. When, to borrow the Eurythmics’ words, [Labor] Are Doin’ It for Themselves. This is as radical and necessary change as I can imagine moving us from failing capitalism to an economy where, “workers themselves should be given a say in what kinds of robots and other new technologies will be introduced, what their working hours will be, and how much they will be compensated.” It’s a long overdue move to economic democracy. Once workers get a taste of it I don’t believe many will want to go back. The issue is how to get them the taste.

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