The Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) unusually militant call for spreading the benefits of new technology with the shortening of the work week has once again been subject to the kind of ridicule that every pro-worker initiative or proposal does.
The weekend itself was first decried as an impossibility and proof of the idle nature of feckless workers. The eight-hour work day was won in bitter struggle. Before the minimum wage came into effect, commentators said that it was anti-business and would prove catastrophic.
So it’s no surprise that commentators are branding the TUC as anti-employer and anti-business. These sort of concessions are impossible. Don’t they know how the world works?
Yet there exists an early blueprint for accepting automation in exchange for sharing the benefits of it.
In the 1960s, port operators on the American west coast were seeking to replace the inefficient ‘break-bulk’ cargo to containerised cargo, using cranes rather than the old hook-based system. The New York Times wrote, in a 2002 article on the episode, that “in accepting automation, the union recognised that productivity would soar and the number of longshoremen needed would plunge”.
Indeed the number of dock workers had, by 2002, been decimated on the west coast – from more than 100,000 workers in the 1950s to 10,500 at the turn of the millennium.
In the 60s, though, the longshoremen were able to negotiate that port operators would share the wealth that they expected to flood in thanks to automation with unionised workers.
“The productivity gains were so phenomenal that it was easy for the employers to pay high salaries,” labour relations expert at Berkely Harley Shaiken told the New York Times.
There were issues with the longshoremen’s struggle, with some sections of the left arguing that the demands were not militant enough, and that there was a collision of interests between the union leadership and the rank and file, the latter with a stronger appetite for a fight.
This debate continues today. The American secretary for labour under Obama’s presidency, Thomas Perez, in just 2016 urged US seaports to consider the ‘needs’ of dock workers.
The dock workers’ struggle can be seen as a microcosm of the effects of automation in wider society that we are only just starting to see and comprehend.
We can’t wait until some arbitrarily picked date like the TUC’s proposed ‘2100’ when there are immense hurdles to overcome today.
New technologies like self-driving cars, for example, threaten the workers in the multi-trillion dollar logistics industry. ‘Industry 4.0’ which is frequently being touted as the next ‘industrial revolution’ will seek to use technology to squeeze ever more ‘efficiencies’ from workers, and automate others out of existence.
Leaving aside that it’s strange that we have collectively settled for the two-day weekend – while productivity soars and wages are depressed – the TUC’s call for a four-day week is, if anything, long overdue. The genie is out of the bottle.
This is why it’s so important to debate initiatives like the shortening of the work week and the universal basic income. It’s up to all of us to navigate a path that would empower and enrich the majority of people, rather than impoverish the majority for the profits of a few.
The Silicon Valley companies undoubtedly have economists in their headquarters plotting out how automation and AI might impact society and jobs. If they are left to their own devices, steering the future of society without the input or consent of citizens, these benefits will be left for the Silicon Valley companies alone.
Take Jeff Bezos’ net worth, and Amazon’s 1 trillion dollar status, while workers are put under harsh conditions to meet strict quotas as proof of the intention of the Silicon Valley companies. The tax status of these companies is another.
But the benefits brought in by new technology could, quite easily, be used to enrich society. It won’t happen without a fight but it is possible. Not only is the TUC’s proposal feasible, it is likely.