Unemployment in automated easy stages - Bill Connolly

International Instruments, Electronics And Automation Exhibition 1964

An article on automation and unemployment from the Syndicalist Workers Association in 1964.

Submitted by Fozzie on March 28, 2022

Content warning - includes brief example of racist language, from an anti-fascist perspective.

The recent electronic and automation exhibition at Olympia is reported to have been a phenomenal success, both from the point of view of attendance and of business deals. A boom in automation isn't news these days, but it is of permanent interest to the potential victim—the industrial worker.

Why this must be so is effectively illustrated by an article in a special supplement issued by the Financial Times to coincide with the Exhibition. The head, “How to automate without being obvious," is itself provocative to make one sit up and take notice, but the contents are equally alarming.
The article is about Elliott-Automation's scheme for gradual conversion of industrial plant to total automation on a step-by-step basis—rather like a kid's brick-building or add-to Meccano set (Elliott, along with English-Electric Leo and ICI-Ferranti, is one of the big names in the British Electronics world.)

The article first of all points out as obstacles to the advance of automation the stupidity and hidebound conservatism which apparently typify our managerial executive class. It earmarks as a strong contributing factor towards this conservatism their fear of workers' reaction against the threat of redundancy. It is quite obvious from this that the Ferrantis and the Elliotts find that their ability to sell their products is strongly limited by the resistance of workers to any automation, which is concerned only with increasing capitalist profits, instead of benefitting all members of society equally.

Being profiteers and not social reformers, their answer to this problem is to a find a way of introducing automation under the unsuspecting worker's nose—and there's no reason why it shouldn't work if we're not very alert to the danger.

One can just see the picture: the Union man comes back from negotiations with good news - 2d. an hour more than we expected and the old crib about canteen facilities is settled . . . and, by the way, they're going to try out a new machine in the packing section, but nobody will lose his job. Joy all round—and the Monster is in. Six months later they "try out" another new machine; again nobody loses his job, but vacancies just aren't filled. A while later the O & M boys and the Operations Researchers are around with charts and statistics, to show the boss the benefits of his little bit of automation and estimates of the profits to be had by going the whole hog.

Dangle those extra profits in front of him long enough and he'll find courage to damn the workers and automate the lot, or he can be more subtle and just keep on adding little bits till everybody's inched out painlessly. As there is little about modern industry to inspire contentment in, or loyalty to a particular concern or firm, the odds are that very few people will have been in the factory long enough to have seen the whole thing happening. There'll just be a few hundred less people employed and nobody knowing why--except the Mosleys and Jordans, who can confidently point out that it is all the fault of the "Niggers and Jews." Obviously the crucial stage in the whole process is at that point when the union man comes to "sell" the deal to the "general body." What is needed is somebody with a nasty suspicious mind who will be prepared to rock the boat by asking awkward cantankerous questions about the "new machine." If he can back this up with a bit of knowledge about the sort of thing that's liable to happen (it doesn't matter how garbled or vague the "info" is) so much the better. This is a case where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—for the other side.

The workers will benefit from automation only if they fight doggedly for their share of its products. In the long run this means achieving a totally new social system. But we must recognise that the society we want is very far from being achieved and the workers' day-to-day struggle must be waged on a bread-and-butter basis.

You can't have Anarchy next Friday, but you can have an extra 10s. in your pay packet; you can't have your fair share of the benefits of automation this year, but you can have a 40-hour week, or avoid redundancy and it's all moving in the right direction if we keep up the pressure long enough.

If you can't get your rights in full, then you've got to settle for whatever you can get, but there's a big difference between workers who have automation slipped in under their noses as part of a "good bargain" which they accept in ignorance --and workers who eventually accept it because they have to, but only after gouging every last concession out of the pockets of the capitalists or State. The moral is that workers must educate themselves to recognise a "pig in a poke," whether it's the boss or the union that tries to sell it to them —and from now on the fattest pigs in the biggest pokes are going to come in the shape of new machines.