The cybernetics of effective organisation: trade unions and technological change


Worldwide, trade unions are grappling with emergent technologies and their impact upon organised labour – what conclusions have been drawn, and what questions still need answered?

THE perception that organised labour exists at odds with technological change is not new.

Arguably, it was a group of English textile workers at the height of the Industrial Revolution who entrenched this idea in the popular imagination – along with a host of misconceptions – when they began a campaign against the new-fangled machinery which many feared would bring their jobs to an end.

In truth, the image of the ‘Luddites’ was often as apocryphal as their leader, the radical (and almost entirely fictitious) stocking frame-smasher Ned Ludd; their protests were not some anti-progress jeremiad against the advance of technology itself, but against its use in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around those few labour practices which existed to protect industrial workers.

Technology may have advanced since the early 19th century, but the concerns remain much the same. As noted in ‘Technological change and the Scottish labour market’, a joint report from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) published in April 2018, the concern of the trade union movement is “not around the use of new technologies per se, but rather how exploitation is masked by innovation, through the framing of ‘collaborative economy’ services.”

This is no academic speculation: an Employment Tribunal Judgement against Uber found that the globe-straddling taxi hire firm had resorted to “fictions, twisted language and brand new terminology” in order to justify its drivers’ apparent self-employment, thus denying them a range of employment protections which the tribunal ruled they were entitled to as workers. Despite that victory, concerns remain, as technology continues to evolve, automation and digitisation take over more and more workplaces, and both organised labour and society at large struggle to keep up.

According to a survey conducted by the STUC which informed the 2018 report, union branches in Scotland see automation and digitisation as “potentially problematic”, often introduced poorly and with little concern for the ill-prepared and unsupported workers who must adapt to its impact. But these concerns cannot be divorced from their wider economic context: since increased automation and digitisation have often coincided with – and are sometimes driven by – austerity conditions and the agendas that drive them, any rise in job-losses or falling wages and hours are difficult to peg to technological change alone.

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However, contrary to neo-Luddite stereotypes, unions can perceive potential benefits as easily as potential troubles ahead. Amongst the anti-capitalist Left, this ability to imagine the positive impact of technological change can verge upon the utopian: the political commentator Aaron Bastani’s notion of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ envisions a future in which automation has supplanted all labour, the energy industry has become fully renewable, and a post-scarcity society has outgrown the need for capitalism as a means of managing production and resources.

Understandably, Bastani does not excessively detail what life in this brave new world would look like, but – as his critics will point out – his roadmap for reaching this next stage of civilisation is similarly vague. In order for such speculations to be of more use to those who wish to bring them into being than an Iain M. Banks novel, some concrete, immediate steps are necessary.

From where we stand at present, in a world still emphatically capitalist, perpetually uncertain and thoroughly imperfect, there is growing consensus amongst the trade union movement that organised labour must not be purely reactive to technological change. Speaking at the conference ‘Behind Closed Circuits: Data, digitisation and trade union tactics’ in Glasgow earlier this year, STUC assistant general secretary Helen Martin pointed out that the debate on automation is often framed around the unwarranted assumption that workers cannot shape its development.

As Martin put it: “Automation is a choice and a business model, in that sense it is not inevitable. It is not the case that the technology exists and therefore it must be deployed. The ways it is implemented are specific choices.”

Broadly, this is the position of the STUC – which has pledged alongside the Scottish Government to support unions and encourage employers to include technological change within collective bargaining agreements, so that “workers can shape how technology is used and introduced”. A similar view was expressed in the TUC’s 2017 report ‘Shaping our Digital Future’, which argued that the UK has the potential to become a digital world leader which can deliver both economic growth and jobs through new technologies – but only if this drive is accompanied by a commitment to equitably sharing the benefits of digitisation throughout the workforce and society.

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Writing ahead of their 2017 conference in Brighton, TUC senior policy officer Tim Page, having noted that recent analysis suggests that approximately 15 million British jobs are at high risk of automation in the coming decades, acknowledges that fears of widespread technological unemployment are “nothing new.”

However, Page argues, “past experience has shown that such fears are unfounded, with technological breakthroughs creating more jobs than they displace. The sting in the tail, however, is that these new jobs are different jobs, requiring different skills. A key challenge for government, employers and unions is to ensure that today’s workers and tomorrow’s workers have the skills to survive and thrive in the digital world.”

The TUC’s solution to this challenge is a “mission” for the UK to become a top five digital economy by 2030; a strategy which places unions at the heart of developing skills for those workers who must adapt to a digital future through targeted retraining and the creation of a more diverse tech workforce, and crucially, a share in the rewards of increasing productivity. This, the TUC argues, can only be achieved through collective bargaining and combating wage inequality.

One could reasonably ask, what else is new? These have always been the goals of the trade union movement. In order to bring them to fruition within the changing landscape of automation and digitisation, some lessons could arguably be drawn from the ongoing battle to organise the ever-evolving tech industry.

Until quite recently, this industry could reasonably have been seen as a pretty poor prospect for solidarity-based organisation. Silicon Valley – which, despite the industry now being a global concern and a focal point for China’s challenge to the hegemony of US-based tech giants, still typifies tech for the Western world – has for years been dominated by what media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron termed the ‘Californian Ideology’ – a kind of corporate libertarianism that prizes disruption through innovation, which in practice has meant deregulation and brutal anti-unionism.

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Nevertheless, the sheer size and economic weight of the tech industry has made it impossible for its swelling labour force to avoid recognising themselves as workers. This is particularly true in the US, where the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies will inevitably collide with the fact that the tech industry relies heavily on hundreds of thousands of immigrant tech workers.

As JS Chen wrote in Jacobin magazine last year, following mass walk-outs by Google employees in protest against the company’s handling of sexual misconduct claims: “It is in this world that tech workers must realize their class position and exercise their class power. Just as hundreds of women at Google led a walk out to demand an end to sexual harassment, tech workers must continue speaking out against billionaire tech-execs and say no to building technologies that support US militarism, surveillance systems, and any other tools of oppression.”

However, as with Bastani and the STUC’s lofty aims, setting the goal and achieving it are two different things. Just as workers who have known their industry for years and decades may be understandably hesitant to retrain in response to technological change – say the words ‘Learn to code’ to a journalist and see what response you get – unionised workers are not guaranteed to be convinced of the necessity of Chen’s leftist program. One need only look at union resistance to Trident abolition in the UK, or the attachment unionised workers at Boeing and Lockheed Martin have to their place in the military-industrial complex, to see the conflict.

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While these are larger concerns than the approach of technological change, they do demonstrate the difficulty of separating a worker-led approach to new technology from a vision for society as a whole. Beyond grand statements from history – “Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country” is a nice slogan, but a little outdated these days – one could do worse than digging through the past to see what can be learned.

Following the election of Salvador Allende, the Chilean Government had by 1971 taken control of 12 of the country’s largest companies. The challenge of the state managing these enterprises efficiently led the visionary young engineer Fernando Flores to collaborate with the British cybernetician and business consultant Stafford Beer, who coined the phrase “the cybernetics of effective organisation.” Through their efforts, they hoped not only to shape the introduction of new technology to Chile, but to use that technology to reform and coordinate a state-run economy, in line with the socialist principles of Allende’s government. The system they envisaged was called Cybersyn.

Cybersyn was not only a revolutionary approach to a planned economy – it was an approach to industrial and technological change that, almost 50 years ago, addressed many of the concerns of present-day trade unionists regarding automation and digitisation. Not only did it recognise that, rather than relying on technology to improve society through its very presence, radical social change would be necessary to achieve positive results through technology’s application, but it hoped to prevent from the outset any scenario in which workers and technology were at cross-purposes: Beer even proposed that the Chilean government allow workers to be involved in Project Cybersyn’s design, because no one understood the industries it would oversee better than them.

Cybersyn, like so much else, did not survive 1973’s bloody CIA-backed coup, which saw the project abandoned and its operations room destroyed. It is likely General Pinochet would not have been keen that anyone learn from its example – one among many reasons why we should perhaps consider it now. If we are concerned about the impact technology has upon society, it may be necessary to change society itself.

Picture courtesy of spencer cooper

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