Workers Identity in a robotic world

Workers Identity in a robotic world

By Scott Dennis Jan 18, 2017

 

 “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Dr. King brought to light our nations struggle with racial inequality, in his many brilliant speeches he carved a narrative that helped to solidify an identity for the oppressed. If you listen closely to the logic of his discourse you find an economic model at the heart of racism. In the American south land owners intentionally created enmity between the races to frighten poor whites into accepting lower wages. The equation was simple to understand, work for pennies or we will get slaves to replace you. For the millions of workers facing obsolesce due to technology this may sound familiar.

Years later Dr. King would point out anecdotally that the southern white policemen that locked him in jail were bringing home the same pay as a black rail car operator in Chicago, the racial advantage was an illusion held onto by racists who could not face the reality of belonging to the larger multi-racial group called the working poor. As a society we have to ask ourselves if anything has changed and if the wonders of our technological advances are lifting all people up or creating a new procariat, or class of people as economically “precarious” as King faced in his time.

What is the identity of a worker?

It is important to note that a workers identity is looked at in a very different way by government and policy makers versus an individual’s own thoughts on how they relate to work. Everyone reading this has their own opinion on what work means to them ranging from a disgruntled factory worker, to a middle manager looking for inspirational leadership as well as contented academics nestled in the ivory tower. Policy and corporate decision makers see things in a different context. With the economic downturn in 2009 concerns about workers could be summed up from a passage taken from Dennis Snower’s Keil Institute study (May 2013).

“..workers can adopt either an elite or underclass identity. An elite worker has a pro-work ethic, with a low disutility of work and a high disutility from being unemployed. This gives the worker a strong incentive to take up work and thereby raises her job finding rate. Conversely, the underclass worker has an anti-work ethic, with a high disutility of work and a low disutility from being unemployed, leading to a lower job finding rate.”

Studies like these are most common when the system is seen to be broken as was the case in 2009. In the simplest terms work has always needed labor and industry makes it their business to drive the narrative to understand where the attitudes of the people are and to control them when possible. Groups like Blue Collar Think Tank are taking action by thinking through strategies for workers with changing identities in the face of technology.

All labor that uplifts humanity

As you toil in your cubicle you might not think that your work helps to uplift humanity, but it does in the practical sense of your taxes being used to improve infrastructure, provide a social safety net for those in need or your contributions to schools and the institutions of your faith. Community bonds are strengthened through friendships at the workplace and when you understand the inherit dignity of work a creative zeal can spark inspiration in even the most mundane occupation. This is why we are at a cross roads in the face of uncontrolled automation, we could suffer the erasure of the workers identity unless we take a determined and holistic approach. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:

“The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.” 

So as Dr. King famously asked where do we go from here? It starts as it did then with understanding who we are in these changing times so that the interests of humanity can be heard above the churning of technological progress. Asking not always can we do this thing but should we and what are the consequences? The new identity of the worker should echo George’s quotation to bring security for its own sake. Workers will need to be more organized in the future to get to that point and will also need to unmask those who want to divide them for their own interests so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Scott Dennis writes for www.bluecollarthinktank.com @bcthinktank

The Factory of the future will have Two Employees

robot

Robots at my door

Scott Dennis-New York

8/22/2016

“The factory of the future will have two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.” -Warren G. Bennis

Having been in the position to hire and fire employees, I have always wanted to judge my own career by the amount of new jobs created to help people support their families. A loss of a job through firing, lay off or just the churn of employees finding new opportunities are disruptive to a person’s life but are part of the normal cycle of the capitalist market place. What happens when this equilibrium between labor and employer comes out of balance? This is what the world is facing in the form of ever-more sophisticated technology. The reality of this Pandora’s Box is affecting your families and friends and employers themselves are now realizing that they cannot control it.

“How can median incomes decrease in countries with gross domestic product and over-all productivity sky rocketing?”

Robots are not waking up with the goal of taking your job, at least not yet. The transition of workers lives in the late 19th and 20th century has seen the standard of living increase in countries embracing technology, labor has generally been made far more productive with income levels creating a healthy middle class in the modernized world.  However the relentless drive toward optimization in the private sector today are using robots to move the cost of labor into the profit margin on a dramatic scale. Even in environments with strong unionized workers, such as the auto industry and longshoremen on the waterfront in America, new technology that has already been seen displacing workers globally is on pace to cut down the need for human assets in blue collar sectors in American cities with ports and heavy industry. In my career I have witnessed the future of a dock workers life as I compared the amount of longshoremen working the Port of Newark or Oakland compared to the relative quiet of a new container terminal in Amsterdam where robots move cargo without the need for their human counterparts, doing away with their wages, pensions and liabilities.

CYgraphic

If you do not know anyone in heavy industry perhaps you believe that this wave of technology is someone else’s problem. The World Economic Forum suggests that in the short term over five million jobs in the administration field such as accountants, sales people and an array of positions in healthcare will be affected. This challenge that labor is facing differs greatly from globalization in that when a country loses a factory to an overseas competitor, people somewhere are getting the work albeit at a lower relative wage. Jobs lost to robotics force labor not to just another job but another occupation since the function of their position is eliminated completely from the market. These shifts due to technology have a number of secondary effects such as income inequality which has become more acute as economic growth continues in an upwards trend with a perverse downward trend in employment. How can median incomes decrease in countries with gross domestic product and over-all productivity sky rocketing? These paradoxes are being created by a third force wedged between labor and employer, robotics and technology and its applications will soon be out of the control of white collar managers. There is a great need for creative strategies  from sectors spanning from technology to faith leaders to offer some positive options for workers that policy makers can carve into legislation.

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Scott Dennis has had a twenty year career in transportation and labor negotiation and is also the founder of Blue Collar Think Tank. scottdennis@bluecollarthinktank.com @bcthinktank

Robot Image courtesy of ShutterStock