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Unions need to confront the results of new technology.

Unions need to confront the results of new technology

How will unions adjust to future developments? If anything can be learned from a study of the past, it is that unions do not oppose technological change per se. They seek to serve their members. If the changes bring benefits--for example, higher productivity accompanied by higher pay--unions can help to promote the changes. However, if the new technologies are applied in ways that lead to reduced employment or poorer working conditions, then opposition, until an accommodation can be reached, should be expected.

At least two factors exist that make the current situation much more difficult than was the case in the past. The first factor is that the great flexibility of computer systems and other modern technologies allow, to a much greater extent than was possible before, the elimination of workers by design. In other words, one of the goals of a redesign can be to reduce labor demand because the computer systems can take over many functions that required the presence of human beings before. It can be argued that earlier technological changes increased the productivity of individual workers but did not necessarily change the fundamental relationship of the worker to the job. Today, the worker is being removed from the job in many cases.

The second important factor is the great portability of electronic work. Land cannot be moved. The location of particular farms and mines cannot be changed. They may be closed, but they cannot be moved. Factories can be moved either to other areas in the United States or to other countries. This kind of shift could be done over a period of time, say one to several years. Modern office work, however, particularly the rapidly increasing fraction that is done electronically, can be shifted literally at the touch of a button.

Entering new period of change

All of this means that the techniques developed by unions over an active 100-year history may not be sufficient to deal with current and future problems. Certainly much can and will be done through collective bargaining to adjust to changing circumstances, but we are entering another period of major fundamental change. Some modern technologies, especially those based on computers, are just not the same as earlier ones. The effects can be much more pronounced, both on employment demand as well as job design. The techniques and the goals of unions will have to adjust to meet new challenges. We are doing just that.

As the economy shifted from manufacturing to services, unions in the service sector expanded rapidly. To give one example: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had about 100,000 members in 1960; it has 10 times that number today. Other unions have grown or have avoided major declines by increasing their organizing efforts in new areas employing white-collar and service workers.

In the face of the many obstacles placed in the unions' path, it can be argued that American unions have been doing very well indeed to hold their own and in some cases to grow. For well over 100 years, American business and occasionally government have not accepted the social utility of unions. This is not the case in many other countries.

Within the current environment, the flexibility afforded management by modern technologies presents American labor with problems that are qualitatively different than in the past. We are entering new waters. It is a time of regrouping and of exploration. Dealing with the results of new technologies is one of the most important issues facing American labor in the years to come. I have no idea what the specifics are going to be, but I am fully confident that we will be just as successful as we have been in the past.
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Chamot, Dennis
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
Words:629
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