Charting Change: Workers’ Voices in an Automated World

In the last one hundred years, our societies have been witness to technological advancements not experienced before. As with every technological revolution, societies will undergo profound changes, which comes with improvements, disruptions and costs. As technological change forges ahead into new frontiers, opening new possibilities, and tantalizes our collective imaginations, it also leaves us in a state of uncertainty over what the future holds. The ebb and flow of change has destroyed occupations while creating new ones, and we know the tide of change cannot be stopped; the best we can do is understand and prepare for it.

The labour movement has grappled with technological change for hundreds of years, and the track record of those changes is mixed. Throughout history, technological change has simultaneously obliterated craft work, trades and skills, routinized tasks making certain jobs dull, while in other cases made work easier. Luddites rebelled against technological change and the destruction of their craft marking forever the uneasy relationship workers would have with technology.

A recent study showed that 42% of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being affected by automation with existing technologies, while in some sectors, the likelihood is much higher. [1] 11.5 million Canadian workers over the age of 50 are at risk of losing their jobs due to automation.[2] In some cases, jobs will be entirely lost, others will be restructured. Recent technological advancements are raising serious concerns about what the future holds for workers, and our society. “Even jobs we once thought were completely outside of the realm of [automation], like truck driving are indeed at risk of being automated.”[3]

Concerns over technological change are certainly warranted; artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the pace, and nature of what technological change looks like in the 21st century.  While automation has been part of workplaces for decades, this era of automation, imbued with artificial intelligence, brings endless possibilities. There is an undeniable difference between technological changes of the last three industrial revolutions from technological change enabled by artificial intelligence.

Proponents of new technologies assure us that new, more interesting jobs will be created, while others, more critical of new technologies, fear it could eventually lead to massive job losses. In Canada alone, it is projected that 1.6 million jobs in industries not susceptible to automation,[4] will be lost. In highly susceptible industries, 2.5 million jobs will be impacted.[5]The World Bank projects that over the next twenty years 57% of jobs will be affected by automation, and that two-thirds of all jobs in developing countries are susceptible to automation.[6] Perhaps most alarming, is that some research indicates that unlike computers and other types of technology used up until now, which increased demand for labour, industrial robots may have a very different impact on employment and wages.[7] Some research indicates that over the last 30 years, “ findings point to stronger displacement effects and weaker reinstatement effects”, meaning that this era of technological change is eroding jobs at a quicker rate than new jobs are being created.[8]

Similarly, adjustment periods following an industrial revolution took substantial time. Consider that, “the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution involved two major Communist revolutions, and that the stabilizing influence of the modern social welfare state emerged only after World War II, nearly 200 years on from the 18th-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.”[9] The context in which technological change develops is important, history has shown that it is spurred by particular political and socio-economic conditions. Without proactive steps, systems tend to lag behind changes by decades, while the brunt of changes is borne by those with limited resources and opportunities.

Another concerning piece of current technological developments lack of regulation. Presently, businesses are allowed to self-regulate and there is little to no understanding of the social impacts of this technology. After all, every technological change has been followed by a corresponding emergence of new social and political systems.

Unions have always played a part in shaping the new social order stemming from changes in the economy and technology. This era of change is no different, but in order to be proactive and involved in the shaping of new social and political orders, it is imperative to understand what kind of change is emerging.

This project is a small step in doing so. To understand change in the context of workplaces where IAMAW members work, the Canadian Territory has embarked on a study of automation. Our organization’s response must be rooted in a reality our members face and be relevant to the work our members do. The report is a summary of research findings from across Canada in several industries.

The objective of the project was to assess the level of automation in workplaces our members work in, and develop appropriate responses, both at the bargaining table and through legislation. Unions must work to address the social impacts, and shape appropriate responses that benefit the public interest; in this regard, unions have always played a role and been the best advocates.  After all, “social consequences of automation are conditional on the strength of organized labor.”[10]

During previous industrial revolutions, it took several decades for labour markets to adjust, and for training and educational systems to be built to match new realities. At this point in time, not only do we have historical precedents to learn from, but copious amounts of research findings about the impact of technological change. We urge governments to act now, and prepare for what is proving to be an unprecedented era.

[1] The Talented Mr.Robot. pg.2
[2] Natalie Schwartz. “ 3 Ways Colleges Can Prepare the workforce for automation” 0g.2
[3] Ibid. pg.4
[4] Automation Across the Nation.
[5] Ibid.
[6] IndustriALL. “ The Challenge of Industry 4.0 and The Demand For New Answers.” 2016. 1-34. Pg. 7
[7] Acemoglu, Daron, Restrpo, Pascual. “Robots and Jobs: Evidence From US Labor Markets.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Cambridge, MA. March, 2017. 1-62. Pg. 32.
[8] Acmoglu. Daron, Restrepo, Pascual. “ Automation and New Tasks: How Technology Displaces and Reinstates Labor.” Pg.6
[10] Parolin, Zachary. “ Automation, Occupational Earnings Trends, and the Moderating Role of Organized Labor.” Social Forces. Oxford University Press. 2020. 1-26. Pg. 8