Guess Who’s Stealing Your Dinner: Robots at G.E.

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Guess Who’s Stealing Your Dinner: Robots at G.E.

by Frank Emspak

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December 1981, p. 7 — 10 & 36 — 37

Frank Emspak works as a machinist at the General Electric Plant in Wilmington, MA. He is presently elected to the executive board of Local 201 IUE representing Wilmington.

In the next five years industry expects a remarkable increase in the number of robots. Other forms of new technology are also expanding rapidly. The new technology means numerically controlled machine tools (N.C.), CAD/CAM (computer aided design, computer aided manufacturing), automatic inspection equipment, various shop monitoring devices and robots. With the introduction of robots and the increasing sophistication and flexibility of other forms of the new technology, a qualitatively different situation faces working people. 

One way of illustrating this new situation is to consider the objectives of N.C. machines as opposed to robots. N.C. equipment seeks to make various parts quicker and more accurately, decrease complexity and set-up time, and replace skilled labor on the shop floor with less skilled labor. It is possible that if the economy does not expand fast enough, serious displacement within the workforce will occur. Robots, on the other hand, are designed to serve other machines, their mission is specifically to replace unskilled labor. With robots displacement of human labor is not a byproduct but an objective. 

Technological advance cannot be stopped, nor do I think that even if it were possible that it would be a fruitful area to explore. Rather, the social cost and abuse of technology is my concern. Since in the U.S. the collective bargaining system is the key area for dealing with the abuse of power by the corporations, the relation of collective bargaining to the new technology will be explored in this article. 

The collective bargaining system is under strain because of the complexity of the issues raised by the new technology. Yet wage rates, layoffs, transfers, maintenance of previous earnings and attrition are all bargainable issues. The problem develops because while each may be achievable in a particular plant, overall they do not solve the problem. 

There is one other aspect to the collective bargaining problem that should be raised. On the surface the new technology, with its emphasis on the elimination of the skilled worker, makes it appear as if the corporations are less vulnerable to work stoppages than in the past. This is not at all clear. In order to make use of the new technology the corporations must make a huge capital investment. Continuous production is the only way to liquidate this investment. The interest must be paid in good times and bad-the machines, unlike workers, cannot be laid off. Thus, it is possible that during this period of transition that the companies may be more vulnerable, not less, to traditional methods of collective action. 

New Technology: The Social Costs 

The social costs of new technology include changes in skills, unemployment, speed-up and noise. N.C. equipment is designed to provide either greater or less access to data, or control of the machine by the workers who use them. Control of the new equipment by the people on the shop floor as opposed to programmers influences the power relations on the shop floor. 

The social cost of the new technology is for the most part being borne by working people. We see it in various ways. The actual cost of investment is being offset by tax incentives and publicly sponsored research and development programs. For example, the Westinghouse Corporation is developing a robotic batch assembly process for small electric motors. The project if funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Skills are another important asset of society. When skills become outmoded, the companies show great reluctance to train workers who are on the job. New workers are brought in. The cost of training is carried by the public school system and not by the private sector. 

The most devastating cost is now showing up in terms of increased unemployment. It is difficult to sort the specific factors and hard to say that a specific person lost a job due to automation. However, there are some important indications that the livelihood of working people is being undermined by the misuse of new technology. 

For many years technologically-related employment has been hidden. New technologies are being introduced at different rates in different industries or plants. Plants that do not have N.C. may be the ones that find themselves in trouble. These plants may claim that they are at a competitive disadvantage with foreign manufacturers. Hence the plant may close, but the actual cause of the plant closure would certainly be obscure, both statistically and to the people involved directly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics underlines this point. 

The effects of these technological changes on employment, however, is very difficult to measure. The effects are indirect and diffuse since technological change does not take place in isolation. Technological changes interact with, and are modified by many other factors that affect employment, such as changes in output, demand, consumer tastes, international competition and many others… furthermore, the effects of technological change on employment do not necessarily occur at the plant which introduced the technological change. (Jerome Mark, Assistant Commissioner, U.S. BLS address, Sept. 1979.) 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) concludes that as long as the economy is expanding and demand increasing, steady technological advance is compatible with rising employment. But, the economy is not expanding, demand in some sectors is falling, while technological innovation is continuing. Therefore, it is also possible to conclude that technological advance is compatible with rising unemployment. To give one very limited example, General Electric Company, in introducing automatic component inserting machines for printed circuits, decreased employment in the printed circuit board department in the Wilmington, MA GE plant by seven people while maintaining production. Likewise, with the introduction of a new robot designed to grit blast parts, three people will be displaced. Perhaps these people, or those who would enter the Company, will find employment elsewhere, but it is by no means a certainty. Employment is a social issue in part determined by how technology is going to be introduced-it is not inherent in the technology. 

Given that estimating direct displacement due to technology is tricky, let us look at another way of estimating the new technology’s impact. Total farm and non-farm manufacturing employment has remained the same since 1950. Since 1969, “not a single person has been added to the manufacturing sector in the U.S.” (Eli Ginzberg, Chairman, National Commission on Full Employment Policy). Meanwhile, as we know, there has been a tremendous increase in the productive capacity of the country—even allowing for inflation. Yet, the average wages for a working class family of four in the Boston area is about equal to what was earned in 1967. The new technology increased productivity and that increase in productivity appeared as a net loss in income for working people. Jobs that would be there in the manufacturing sector have been lost, and people have left the work force and not re-entered. 

The disappearance of “white collar” jobs is particularly significant. It has been the white collar sectors, especially white collar jobs in government, that have absorbed those displaced by an increasingly productive manufacturing economy. More and more, this displacement option is no longer available. The office is being capitalized by investments made in machinery, with concomitant pressure to increase productivity and cut employment. 

The elimination of jobs and skills is a social cost, but it is also a political issue. Maintaining jobs or retraining those that are displaced means establishing a social policy that requires the corporations to repatriate some of their profits for the greater good. This cannot be done on a company by company level. Therefore, collective bargaining has begun to consider broader political issues. Employment, present and future, is the issue. 

In addition to questions of employment which the new technology raises, the introduction of a new technology, at least at General Electric, has been accompanied by a decrease in earnings. This decrease has taken two forms: an absolute decrease in earnings as various jobs have been moved off piecework to N.C. machines where operators are paid a daywork rate, and a relative decrease in earnings compared to the amount the operator can produce with the new equipment. The real decrease in earnings is a traditional collective bargaining matter and illustrates the pressures being brought to bear on the collective bargaining system. If we look at large employers going from piecework to day work, there is also a net income loss to the community; in other words, another social cost. 

To give an actual illustration of how earnings are cut as a shop is modernized, I will examine a larger machine shop at GE. In April of 1977 there were five conventional machines, and nine machinists, scattered over three shifts. In May, 1980 there were five machines, including two N.C. lathes; seven people were employed, yet production had approximately doubled. Two people were on daywork, so that the number of piece workers had been reduced from nine to five. The net result was an increase in production, decrease in the number of employees and a major reduction in piecework payments. In addition, most long running jobs, especially the least complex ones, have been transferred to the N.C. machines. The most lucrative piecework jobs are gone. 

The actual labor grade of the individuals involved (R-19) is the same, but the method of payment is different. Since piecework systems are designed to pay out 25% to 50% above the daywork rate, we can see that the advent of new technology can result in actual earnings cuts. 

The question of skills is central to the rationale for the introduction of N.C. equipment. Indeed, one explanation for the introduction of N.C. equipment was the shortage of skilled workers. Basically, in the area of skill the companies are taking from the worker and giving nothing in return. It is the machinist’s skill in setting up and operating the machine that is transferred to the tape. In one sense the machine operator no longer needs those skills in order to operate the new tape machine; the job has been deskilled to the extent that the worker no longer has to use judgments in set-ups and judgment in choosing feeds and speeds. This loss of skill is a social cost. 

The problem of who programs the machine raises the issue of management prerogative. A union that addresses these issues is demanding a say in the organization of production—traditionally in the U.S. exclusively a management area. Hence, again the collective bargaining process is put under pressure. There is no way to address the question of who programs the machines without taking on the question of who organizes production. 

The concept of skill is central to the trade union and its ability to control events on the shop floor. As the machinist loses overall responsibility for setting up and running a job, these functions become located in the programming department—usually non-union. The ability to control the shop floor is reduced. In other words, the advent of new technology in the form it is being introduced today potentially undermines the union—by taking skilled work from the bargaining unit and by reducing the replacement costs of machine operators in cases of strikes. It would take a major challenge to traditional practices to negotiate a contract where the skills remain in the bargaining unit, and where the machine operator participates actively in the programming of the machine. 

Contracts negotiated in Norway between the Norwegian Metal Workers Federation and VapenFabrike shows that programming can be done from the shop floor. In small job shops in America, the machinist often participates in the programming out of necessity. In fact, companies such as Siemens are producing N.C. controls designed to accomodate shop floor programming. Indeed, in their Karlsruhe plant, there are limited examples of machinists doing the programming on the shop floor. 

The design of computer-based equipment relates to the issue of control. To take a simple example, most modern equipment from machine tools to cash registers can be designed to register the amount of production at the machine or terminal. Factory management systems, systems which monitor the operator, the location of parts, payroll and personnel records, can be integrated into an actual machine measuring system. The worker winds up monitored, measured, instructed, and in a sense, disciplined by such a system. This is an intolerable system. 

The Introduction of the SAM System 

We at GE have specific experience with such a system and our dealings with the Company illustrate the difficulties collective bargaining has with issues concerning the new technology. In December of 1979, the Company announced that a new system called SAM—Shop Activities Management—would be introduced into the Everett plant of GE. The management said that the system would eliminate pay shortages, simplify payroll and thus help the worker. In actuality, the system does the payroll, serves a production control function, monitors the location of all work in the plant, keeps a record of all time turned in for non-standard operations, and gives pieceworkers the job they are to do in a day. In addition, foremen, though not workers, have access to personnel records, including attendance and tardiness. Finally, the system will result in the loss of several payroll jobs, and as time goes on, will allow the company to standardize prices for non-standard work. 

The Company attempted to sell the system as a payroll correction device, while in fact they were most intereted in its other functions. This became obvious when we realized the cost of the SAM system was so great that ten payroll clerks could be added for a lifetime on the interest payments alone based on the investment in the system. 

In order to introduce the system, the Company used subterfuge. It was able to do that because the Company had complete control of the information regarding SAM. They knew its capabilities and the union did not. Neither we nor most other unions have contractual protection guaranteeing that the companies must give us information regarding the capabilities of such a system before it is introduced. 

Secondly, the Company used a form of blackmail—both implicit and explicit. They argued that technology could not be stopped, that they had to automate to survive and that unless the Company automated they could not remain competitive. In other words, the Company threatened the employees with their jobs. 

As time went on the police function of the system became clearer and the question of access to the system, and hence its design, have come forward. Workers have limited access to the system, while management has greater access and ability to add and delete data, and review personnel records. This is a question of power and therefore is a subject for collective bargaining, but that begs the issue. At the moment our system lacks the ability to respond and monitor such a system. We lack trained stewards who understand the system and can evaluate what is happening on the shop floor as the system is put into place. 

For us in America the Factory Management systems raise two important ideas—the concept of data shop stewards and access. Data shop stewards are stewards elected and trained in the use of the systems designed to control them. Access means contractual rights to all data stored in the system concerning wage rates, employment, personnel records and production. Finally a related topic in a piecework shop (as in Everett) is the problem of measured day work. With SAM the company will have enough production data to more easily measure and demand production above the norm for the department or job. The introduction of Factory Management systems brings to bear another pressure on the collective bargaining system. Workers must have the right of access to the systems monitoring them-much like a worker today can go with his steward to the foreman and question his actions. We must have the ability to question the data system used to track parts and ourselves and question them. 

The introduction of the SAM system caused the membership of our local union to become increasingly concerned with the issue of new technology. During the late winter the membership asked the local president to form a committee to study and make recommendations about the impact of the new technology on the workplace. We wanted to avoid the “show the movie and say yes” technique that the Company employed so successfully when they introduced the SAM system. 

The committee, called the “SAM” committee, met intermittently. Finally, at the end of August, 1980, the committee decided to advise the Policy Board of the local to request negotiations with the Company regarding the new technology. The committee recommended that the union ask for limitations on the Company’s right to collect data that monitors workers. In addition, the committee asked for meaningful notification of technical changes which would impact the workplace. 

At approximately the same time the candidates for international office in our union raised the issue of robotics and new technologies. Each felt the union should be doing more, and in particular, both felt we needed policies that would guide the local unions in their response to company initiatives in these areas. At the international convention a wide ranging position was adopted emphasizing research, notification and job enrichment. 

Before our local committee could react to the emphasis on the new technology shown by the international union, the Company brought the technology issue to a new stage. 

Robots Come to GE-Lynn 

On October 30 at 11:15 a.m., the General Electric Company management announced to the union that a robot would be installed in the Everett location on Monday, November 3rd. The Company indicated that three piece workers would be transferred to similar grit blast jobs in other parts of the plant. 

The Company planned well for the announcement. They gave only two days notice, hoping that the union would not have time to assimilate the information and react. The announcement coincided with the holiday season and the winter heating season, making a strike or other direct action extremely difficult. The lack of notification was deliberate, as it takes at least eight months to order and take delivery of the robots. Furthermore, the Company indicated that the placement of robots followed a one-year study. The Company was well aware of what they wanted to do months ago. It continued its historic labor relations policy deliberately refusing to acknowledge the union’s right to be informed in a timely manner of matters affecting the work situation or wage rates. In addition, Company planning extended to the location of the robot in the shop for maximum public relations effect. In their view the robot would be placed in the middle of the shop where all could see it. A “team” of hourly and salary people would be allowed to familiarize themselves with it and explain it to the other workers. Finally, the operators would be given a trip to Toledo, Ohio to learn about the machine. 

The introduction of robotics in the Lynn facility is part of a company-wide program to modernize as rapidly as possible. Corporate level management also indicated another purpose in introducing robots into Lynn. They believed that if Lynn could be convinced not to resist, then all locations would follow the lead of the Lynn local. From their point of view the Company had good experience with Lynn. When the management announced the introduction of the Shop Activities Management system in December of 1979, the union did not place demands on the Company. It took many months before the local understood the system, and it was only in August of 1980 that the first steps were taken towards developing a negotiating position. 

GE used the SAM technique again. The union was asked to be present at a film about robots. We were informed that the robot on the film was the type to be introduced in GE. Then as the film progressed the Company, without ever making a formal written announcement to the union, told us that the robot was on the way. In the future four other areas of the plant would be affected. This time the audience saw clearly the Company’s view of the future—job losses, cuts in piecework earnings, the weakening of the union and insecurity. When the Company asked if the union was satisfied, the spokesperson was surprised to hear the union request time for review. 

Following the request for review, the President immediately called into session the SAM committee. Along with committee members, all concerned officers were invited to attend. The committee members realized that the jobs of our co-workers and the livelihood of our children were at stake. In addition, the Company’s attitude of “no notice” brought home GE’s arrogant notion that progress was inevitable and unchanging with the Company the only beneficiary. 

The committee voted unanimously that the “Company delay the placement of the robot in the Everett plant until such time as the negotiating committee and the Company meet and agree on guidelines for the placement of such machines.” The committee also discussed what kind of guidelines were appropriate-without getting into too much detail. Central to the concerns were; 1) no layoffs (i.e. removal from the GE payroll), 2) those displaced from their jobs enjoy average earnings while they are being retrained for jobs with equal or higher earnings potential, 3) repair and/ or maintenance of the equipment be kept within the bargaining unit, and 4) “in general, monetary gains due to increased productivity be shared with the employees.” The committee felt strongly that serious and meaningful notification to the union of the arrival and impact of new equipment was a necessary first step on the part of the Company. 

The president then directed the business agent to notify the Company that the union wanted a delay in implementation of the robot until the union could sit down with the Company. The Company, without being told what the precise nature of our demands were, agreed to a meeting the following week and a delay until the meeting. 

The SAM committee’s actions were significant in two respects: First, the committee, in cooperation with the officers, acted to try to stop the company from imposing the robot on us before we agreed on the terms. Second, the members of the committee, in the discussion of what to do, challenged the notion of “progress” being some kind of neutral force. The committee, by seeking guidelines to regulate the robot recognized the question—”Progress at whose expense?” In defining the guidelines the committee answered it-that working people should not be forced to suffer due to “progress.” The discussion challenged the Company view as set forth earlier in the movie that “Progress is inevitable and boundless.” Inherent in the committee’s position is a challenge to management prerogatives. We are saying to GE that it cannot run the business at the cost of our employment. 

Rebirth of the Trade Union Movement? 

The contrast in the union’s response to the Company’s initiative illustrate the great change in our understanding in the last year. Instead of confusion and delay, we were able to make use of our knowledge and agree, unanimously, on a response to the impending application of the robot to production. One reason we were able to respond is a greater sophistication in our understanding of the idea of “progress”—more and more of us want to define “progress” in our own interests. 

The robot has focused all the unease that the leadership felt concerning the method the company has used to introduce the new technology. The Company has used subterfuge, partial information and immediate implementation in order to avoid any negative response from the union. This time many people felt the union had been insulted, since the Company refused to give adequate notice and simply assumed there would be no substantive questions. The robot also symbolized the question of jobs. The gradual increase in numerically controlled equipment has had a subtle impact on jobs. 

It is difficult to say a specific employee lost his or her job due to the increased productivity associated with N.C. The robot, however, means the immediate displacement of three people to a department that may in turn have the next robot GE buys. Thus the issue of jobs and our future was underlined. Nonetheless, the committee discussion reveals that the members, stewards and officers of the local have a detailed and sophisticated knowledge of the meaning of the new technology for ourselves and for GE. 

It is possible, even likely, that our local will not succeed in forcing GE to accept our guidelines before they install the robot. There is good reason to believe, based on GE’s past labor relations policy, that they might accept considerable financial loss in order to make the point—that the company will be the sole determinant of what constitutes progress. It is conceivable that GE chose Lynn to implement the robotics project because of the long tradition of militancy associated with this local. On the other hand, attrition is a concept often accepted by the Company. Only the future will determine what will happen with our initiative. But we are asking the questions—and sooner or later the labor movement will formulate and put into practice the answers. 

At the plant level prior notification and protections against the use of monitoring systems can be negotiated. At the National level agreements can be reached concerning the size and extent of the bargaining unit and who controls the machines. The overall issue of job displacement, investment and training are national issues; they cannot be settled on a company by company basis. It will require a national labor policy to deal with such issues. In order to deal with working conditions, especially the availability of employement, the collective bargaining process must become politicized and take on the fundamental issue of management prerogatives. 

It is my belief that qualitative changes in the workplace will bring about qualitative changes in the issues dealt with by the American trade union movement. If that happens, we will see the birth of a new and vibrant trade union movement.

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