The "robots" are talking back.
For years, scholars have been poking around in the American work-place and coming up with long treatises describing a vast, half-hidden world of regimentation, frustration and boredom that is populated by human robots.
Now a major AFL-CIO union, the 550,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA), is mounting a nationwide demonstration to protest what it calls dehumanizing job pressures. Its rallying cry: "We are people, not machines."
The pressures, the union contends, include compulsory overtime work, arbitrary absenteeism controls and computerized scheduling so exacting that it results in what the union derisively calls "timed potty breaks."
The demonstration will culminate in a national "Job Pressures Day" June 15, when workers are being encouraged to participate in protest activities, including informational picketing but not work stoppages, to draw attention to their complaints.
The CWA protest is said to be unusual if not unprecedented for a major union in the AFL-CIO, which generally has concentrated on the more traditional bread-and-butter issues and has responded to automation largely by seeking job security. Many unions - the CWA included - have been suspicious of "job enrichment" programs designed to increase worker productivity.
The protest reflects mounting concern about the long-term impact of automation and computerization on the lives of workers and their families, including those of the expanding ranks of white-collar office workers as well as blue-collar workers on a assembly line. A recent national survey done for the U.S. Labor Department showed a dramatic decline in job satisfaction, especially among white-collar workers, in recent years.
Dissatisfaction stems not only from changes in work but also from the makeup of the work force, with its increasing numbers of better educated workers, young people, women and minorities. Impetus for the CWA demonstration, for instance, came from a union women's conference last year.
The gaint Bell system, the CWA's major employer and thus a primary target of the demonstration, has already responded with some experimental programs and a high-level task force on "work relationships" within its 1-million-member work force.
The auto industry and the United Auto Workers, an independent union, also have cooperated inchipping away at the regimentation of the assembly line, but their efforts are aimed almost exclusively at blue-collar workers.
CWA President Glenn Watts wrote in a recent article for the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO:
"Although white-collar workers are likely to work in cleaner surroundings than their coworders in the factory - perhaps even with a rug on the floor and drapes on the window - they often find themselves reduced by automation to tasks that are just as monotonous . . .
"In a modern telephone company where electronic switching systems set the pace, insult is added to injury when the computer itself reports at regular intervals on your performance and tells you what you are doing - as if you didn't know. Meanwhile, supervisors are pacing monitoring and criticizing and correcting. The pressure is on, all the time, around the clock, and the ideal of doing a good job gets buried under the motto: 'quantity, not quality.'"
Under such a system, Watts added, "operators lower their performance index when they take just three seconds to be polite." Courtesy is a casualty, he said, along with workers' physical and mental health.
As partial answers to the problem, Watts suggested more worker involvement in decisions affecting how their jobs are done, more use of flexible work periods and "human impact studies," similar to environmental impact studies, before technological advances are brought to the workplace.