For much of organized labor, the automation scare of the early 1960s is fast becoming the reality of the 1980.
As more and more of he nation's manufacturing industries begin to switch from people to machinery in order to boost sagging productivity, the future of many of the nation's current blue-collar manufacturing workers becomes bleaker and bleaker. In the longer run, however, the change is apt to produce a totally new emphasis in contact bargaining with a much more highly skilled, highly paid work force emerging in manufacturing.
Suthor-economist Peter Drucker predicts that by the turn of the century, the number of blue-collar manufacturing workers will total less than 10 percent of the nation's work force -- about the same size as the farm work force today.
"The developments which will ensure the decline in the proportion of the labor force engaged in manual manufacturing work are major structural demographic changes," Drucker wrote in a recent paper for presentation at Pennsylvania University's Wharton School. "Everybody in the American labor force 20 years hence is now born. And the basic fact is that regardless of wage levels, America cannot maintain a manufacturing base resting on tradition manual work and workers. The manpower needed will not be available at any price."
Because of the declining birthrate and the expected worker shortage in the coming decades, Drucker warns that the nation's manufacturing industries must follow the same route as farming, which shifted from "a 'manual' and largely unskilled task into a capital-intensive, knowledge-intense and most nearly 'automated' industry."
Since 1960, the average number of workers involved in manufacturing has dropped from nearly 31 percent of the nation's nonagricultural work force to approximately 22 percent. More important for the trade union movement, the mix of workers involved in manufacturing is rapidly shifting from a majority of unskilled and semiskilled workers to a majority of skilled workers with higher education and training requirements.
The trend toward manufacturing automation already has begun to have impact at the bargaining table. Throughout the 1970s -- a decade in which the nation's economy changed from a manufacturing to a service base -- the emphasis in manufacturing bargaining has involved from innovative new contract demands to job security.
With each new round of contract bargaining, the major manufacturing unions primarily have concentrated on protecting the members they had left throught the life of the new agreement. The unions basically have accepted the permanence of the job losses in their industries.
Perhaps no one recognizes this more than AFL-CIO President Land Kirkland. Noting that McDonalds now employs more people than U.S. Steel, Kirkland told a luncheon gathering earlier this year that "mass production has run its cycle." Kirkland also noted that "there has not been a net job added to (U.S.) manufacturing since the Korean War."
As more and more manufacturing firms move from labor intensive to capital intensive, the AFL-CIO leader sees "continuous operaton" as the premium at the bargaining table. Auto industry officials already are talking about the need for assurances of continuous operations when they go to the bargaining table with the United Auto Workers union next year -- a demand the union indicates it is prepared to meet.
At the bargaining table, the shift from labor to machinery -- a shift that being pushed hard by the "Reagan administration and Congress with proposals for accelerated tax depreciation for business plant and equipment -- is apt to produce fewer, but much better paid manufacturing workers.
Perhaps a sign of just how serious industry sees the need to become captial intensive came this week from John F. Welch, the new chairman of the General Electric Co. Welch announced at the company's annual meeting that GE plans to become a "major producer" of industrial robots and other automation systems. He predicted a "big profitable market for productivity."
Kirkland points to his own former workplace, the maritime industry, as a sign of what to expect in manufacturing. When he first went to sea, he says, the maritime industry was labor intensive. Today, he says, the cost of shipbuilding has become so great and the number of people needed to operate the ships so comparatively small that shipowners are willing to pay seamen almost anything they want just so the skip keeps operating.
Or, as former Labor Secretary John Dunlop is fond of telling his Harvard economics students: "Workers are paid according to their ability to mess up."