Why trade unions are even more relevant today

Posted on June 27, 2015


Trade unions — as democratic organisations of the sellers of labour — are probably more relevant now than they have ever been. Especially for anyone who feels that democracy is an important concept. Unfortunately, however, most of the unions remain narrowly focussed in a manner better suited to fighting the battles of an earlier era.

But business and, in particular, large global corporations, have clearly realised that a technological revolution is fully underway that is changing the social and economic face of the planet. However, for the most part, they are also trapped in ways of thinking that belong to the first industrial revolution and the emergence of the capitalist system.

These companies and corporations are moving steadily to adjust to what has been happening in recent years and what will almost certainly happen in the years ahead; developments that will result in increased wealth generation, but with fewer and fewer workers — and provide a real threat to what limited democracy exists.

This week saw a small example of this development when Anglo Platinum announced planned “restructuring” with the loss of jobs. There should have been no surprise expressed at this: job loss announcements, especially in the mining sector, have been on the cards for at least two years.

The only questions are: how fast will how many jobs become redundant? One Japanese estimate is that as many as 185 000 mining jobs — or about 40% of the current workforce — could be lost. Most other estimates are lower, but still in the tens of thousands.

Automation and mechanisation are the names of the game. And it is a game powered by what this column has called the micro-chip or integrated circuit revolution.

American software developer and author, Martin Ford, has called it the rise of the robots, which is the title of his latest book, released last month, with the sub-title: “and the Threat of a Jobless Future”. Ford produced a book in 2009, The Lights in the Tunnel in which he speculated that technological developments then underway could threaten even highly skilled jobs.

There was nothing new in what he outlined. Go back to 1933 to that hardly revolutionary economist John Maynard Keynes. He noted that job losses may be inevitable “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour”.

Keynes could never be accused of being a Marxist, but it was Karl Marx and his collaborator, Frederick Engels who first speculated that the system developing in 1848 would “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere” on the earth and lead to “the absurdity of over production”.

It has led to is precisely that. But it has also created a massive disparity of riches, the vast “wage and welfare gap” that leaves increasing numbers of people forced to the margins of survival.

Around the world, from the United States to Germany real wages are falling and what jobs are available tend to be in the service industries and low paid. But now, even hamburger chains can be automated. Last year, San Francisco based Momentum Machines developed a robot that can produce a gourmet hamburger in 10 seconds. Operated by one person, it can do the job of an entire McDonalds “crew”, not only faster, but consistently better.

But workers across the board are threatened and, according to researchers at Britain’s Oxford University, 47% of jobs in the United States could be automated within 20 years. And not just repetitive labour. Even journalism is under threat, with financial analysis and a range of sports stories, tailored to individual publications, already being produced by computer for such illustrious magazines as Forbes.

This economic reality is fundamentally undemocratic, consigning much of humanity to lives of desperate misery while channelling increasing wealth to a small minority. And this is the new reality that trade unions must face — and adapt to. Just as the guild and craft unions of a century and more ago made way for general industrial unions, unions should perhaps now spread their democratic organisation not only to the employed, but also to the unemployed and the communities in which workers reside.

They may then wish to take up Martin Ford’s reformist suggestion of a basic income grant for everyone in order to ensure that the present system survives. Or they may wish to argue for an entirely new system. But the labour movement is, in principle, the only secular, non-partisan and democratic organisation that could play such a role. If it does not, the future looks bleak.