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Technological change and unionization in the service sector.

Technological change and unionization in the service sector

The shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on services presents organized labor with major challenges. What the labor movement confronts is dwindling power in the manufacturing industries where it once exercised extensive control and relatively little presence in service industries, which are fast becoming the dominant industries in the American economy. In order to regain the position it once held in American society, the labor movement must assess the effects of technological change on service sector workers are develop new strategies for unionization.

How are new technologies transforming work in the service industries and what do these changes suggest for organizing service sector workers? In the clerical occupations, the evidence regarding the loss of jobs due to automation is contradictory. On the one hand, a well-publicized study conducted by Wassily Leontief and Faye Duchin predicted that clerical employment would decline from 17.8 percent of the labor force in 1978 to 13.5 percent of the labor force in 1990.1 On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that in the most plausible worst-case scenario, clerical employment would lose 2 percentage points of its share of total employment by 1995.2 What both the more pessimistic and the more optimistic researchers share is an assessment that we can expect slower growth in the clerical occupations over the next decade, in part due to the continued introduction of laborsaving technologies.

The evidence is also contradictory on the effects of technological change on the quality of clerical jobs. As has been the case in other sectors, office automation leads to the deskilling of old jobs and the creation of new skilled jobs. By now, the history of the deskilling of the secretarial occupation is familiar. The job of the traditional secretary combined the multiple tasks of coordinating, typing, transcribing, and filing. By contrast, the job of a person working at a word processor in a large insurance company or bank today frequently involves the continuous repetition of one task. Many persons working at word processing machines repeatedly enter precoded information onto form letters, which are stored on the word processor.3

At the same time, however, the introduction of automated technologies into industries with large numbers of clerical jobs has brought with it the creation of new skilled occupations. In the insurance industry, for example, the introduction of computers has allowed some clerical workers to take on the tasks previously performed by professional insurance adjusters. Nevertheless, I would argue that in the absence of unionization, the long-term consequence of technological change on the quality of clerical jobs is likely to be negative.

What about the effects of technological change on other workers in the service industries, such as food service workers, janitors, and hospital aides? In many service sector jobs, technological change appears to play a less significant role than it has with clerical jobs. For example, technological innovation has done little to change the demand for or the work process of cleaning service workers. The work still requires the intensive labor of workers, which cannot be readily replaced by machines. Another important difference between clerical jobs and other jobs in the service sector is that many service sector jobs cannot be exported. The very nature of many service sector jobs involves the direct, personal provision of services to consumers. The jobs of food service workers, janitors, and hospital aides cannot be relocated.

Technological change in the service sector confronts the labor movement with both obstacles and opportunities for organization. One key obstacle arises from the positive expectations often generated by the technologies themselves. Workers sometimes see the introduction of word processors, for example, as a positive development offering possibilities for acquiring new skills that will provide the basis for advancement. At the same time, however, these same workers who anticipate positive consequences from the introduction of new technologies may become ripe for organizing when their expectations go unmet. For example, when clerical workers are offered the opportunity to take on new skills in their jobs, such as in the case of insurance adjusting, but are not remunerated for those skills, dissatisfaction can arise.

Technological issues often prove insufficiently concrete to provide a basis for organizing. Therefore, a strategy based on technological change alone is less likely to be successful than one that combines demands for control over technology with other demands for enhancing workers' rights in the workplace. The issue of pay equity or comparable worth provides an example. Pay equity or comparable worth refers to the strategy wherein workers, usually female workers, seek to increase their wages based on evidence that their jobs require skills comparable to those of the jobs held by other workers who are more highly remunerated.4 The experience of certain unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, has demonstrated that pay equity can be a powerful and effective issue for organizing.

New possibilities exist for joining the issues of technological change and pay equity. Insofar as technological change often adversely affects the skill levels of occupations in the service sector, the long-term success of the pay equity movement may depend on workers' ability to control technological change. If workers are unable to intervene in the process of automation, the very skilled jobs that are today the target of pay equity demands may be eliminated or replaced by low skilled jobs. But by linking demands for pay equity to demands for control over workplace technologies, the labor movement may succeed not only in breathing new life into Samuel Gompers' admonition that workers must control machines rather than be controlled by them, but also in organizing the unorganized.

1 Wassily Leontief and Faye Duchin, The Impacts of Automation on Employment, 1963-2000 (New York, Institute for Economic Analysis, New York University, 1984).

2 Heidi I. Hartmann, Robert E. Kraut, and Louise A. Tilly, eds., Computer Chips and Paper Clips: Vol. I, Technology and Women's Employment (Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1986).

3 Automation of America's Offices, 1985-2000. OAT-CIT-287 (Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, 1985).

4 Donald J. Treiman and Heidi I. Hartmann, eds., Women, Work and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value, Report of the Committee on Occupational Classification and Analysis (Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1981).
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Author:Costello, Cynthia B.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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