Automation is making unions irrelevant

The problem with unions is they can’t protect jobs. They can’t stop a company from moving jobs overseas, closing offices, or replacing workers with automation.

I grew up in Connecticut, a heavily unionized state. In the post-war period, the state’s industries made typewriters, appliances, bearings, locks, tools. None of them survived.

Through the 1960s and into the 1980s, thousands of factory workers lost their jobs, including my father.   

These jobs were lost because of globalization and changes in technology. The unions did not cause these job losses, and IT workers provide a good example as to why.

In Connecticut, the big IT employers are financial services firms, insurance companies mostly. These firms aren’t unionized. In the late 1990s, financial services firms began offshoring work and IT jobs were cut. The same forces that dismantled manufacturing jobs were now attacking highly skilled, knowledge-based jobs.

A group of Connecticut IT workers organized. The offshoring companies needed temporary visa workers, H-1B holders, to take work overseas. Government visa policies should not facilitate job losses, they argued.  

These IT workers met with lawmakers, they spoke out at meetings and held demonstrations. In a way, they succeeded. In 2003, Connecticut lawmakers introduced three bills proposing restrictions on H-1B and L-1 visas, which were never adopted. They were, as an ad hoc group, probably as effective as any union.

The attack on unions in Michigan, say critics, is directed at undermining unions and their political contributions to Democrats. The proponents of right-to-work legislation say it will make Michigan more competitive and business friendly. Well, no, not really.

Michigan is already business friendly.

In a report this month, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, ranked Michigan third among states in high-tech employment growth from 2010-2011.  It had 6.9% growth, putting its high-tech population at 167,000 jobs. By comparison, California has just over 1 million tech jobs, New York, 340,000, and Massachusetts, 265,000.

How does right-to-work legislation help tech job growth? It doesn’t. The tech industry isn’t unionized. The real problem for Michigan's manufacturing workers is automation.   

Amazon, for instance, spent $775 million this year to acquire a company, Kiva Systems, that makes robots used in warehouses. Automation will replace warehouse workers and even retail workers. In time, Google’s driverless cars will replace drivers in the trucking industry.

It’s a given that manufacturing facilities, already highly automated, will become completely robotic.

Destroying unions won’t help Michigan’s economy any more than unions helped to protect Connecticut’s workers. 

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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