THE trades union congress published its first statement on automation in 1956. This was followed in 1965 by Automation and Technological Change, of which a revised edition has recently been published.
Within its limits it is a useful discussion of the problems and prospects of automation in its various shades of meaning and of other forms of technological change. It dismisses the wild assumptions that automation would quickly revolutionise workers’ lives under capitalism by providing abundance or alternatively by putting vast millions out of work.
It reaches the conclusion that the hitherto slow rate of introduction of automation is likely to quicken in coming years and increasingly affect clerical and managerial workers, not by reducing the total number of jobs but by destroying particular jobs and calling for new types of work and in this way causing great hardship to large numbers of workers forced to change their jobs, move to different areas and undergo new training, often late in life.
While generally favourable to technological change and emphasising the likelihood of higher wages in some industries it admits that conditions of work may be worsened by the introduction of more shift work and, in some fields, by Saturday and Sunday work, excessive overtime and by the replacement of men by women. It records that in offices it sometimes means an increase of tiring and boring jobs such as punch card work, with associated greater noise in the work rooms.
Its great defect is that it tacitly accepts the continuation of capitalism and assumes that the system is now capable of being planned and controlled on a “full employment” basis—the typical Labour Party attitude.
It tells us:
Maintenance of full employment is chiefly the responsibility of the government. All political parties, the Confederation of British Industry and the TUC accept that this should be the case. There is agreement that the necessary techniques arc available to sustain full employment, although not everybody agrees as to when and how they should be used, or whether full employment is a principal responsibility of government or merely one responsibility.
It also tells us that “a high level of employment has been maintained in the post-war period”, a claim that reads rather oddly in face of the fact that unemployment in the past two years has been running at levels which are a record for post-war years and that the TUC has just told the government that they must bring unemployment down to 400,000 by the end of this year.
The statement barely mentions foreign competition and ignores the fact that a decline of world markets which are outside the control of the government, the CBI and the TUC, could drastically increase the amount of unemployment and undermine the safeguards the TUC proposes.
The obligations placed on the TUC by the trade unions exclude consideration of the possibility that capitalism could be replaced by Socialism, with the consequent abolition of production for the market and the wages system. So nowhere does the statement even look at the completely different standards from which automation and technological change would be regarded in a socialist system of society, when for the first time the wellbeing of all would be the only consideration.