Could Automation Be Labor Unions' Death Knell?

Automation needn't be scary for workers, but for traditional unions, the robot future may hold a different fate.


There's a new addition to the ever-growing list of things we're supposed to fear. On top of ISIS, Ebola, and a Yellowstone super volcano, tack on automation. The wholesale replacement of large portions of America's workforce with robotic machinery is creating Chicken Little-like headlines.

"As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up," declares The New York Times; "Cheaper Robots Could Replace More Factory Workers," suggests Reuters. "What Jobs Will the Robots Take?" asks The Atlantic.

While these perceived dangers are admittedly more subtle than those that might accompany a rogue asteroid, they are worrying indeed. Automation might not wipe us out immediately, but it will almost certainly affect economies in Earth-shattering ways.

Forecasts differ on the specifics, but they generally point to automation being disruptive as far as traditional workplace roles are concerned. A recent Oxford University study put nearly half (47 percent) of all jobs at risk of replacement by automation in two decades. A Wired article puts the number at 70 percent by the end of this century.

Computers are getting smarter and stronger while employees, with their health insurance, pensions, and vacation time are becoming increasingly expensive. The writing is on the wall; plenty of jobs, at least as performed by humans, aren't long for this world.

Of course, no one knows exactly how automation will shake up the worker economy, but there will almost certainly be winners and losers. IT and creative jobs will proliferate while administrative, factory, and service employment will largely go the way of the dodo.

And for labor unions, that may very well mean that the bell tolls for thee. While unions have generally been in decline for some time, automation may prove to be the proverbial dagger through the heart.

Unions played a powerful role at one time, but with more people working from home independently and a global economy that requires 24-hour interaction, groups that demand to define when and where we can work may not be a model for modernity. In today's digitally connected world, any constraints on when people can work will almost certainly only hurt workers. The days of clocking in from 9 to 5 are all but in the rear view.

The biggest problem for labor, though, is that robots will reign first where unions tend to be strongest: manufacturing, shipping, and the service industries, and possibly even education. Anyone that has a single lingering doubt need only to Google "Kiva," the robotics company acquired by Amazon in 2012 that is increasingly responsible for its order fulfillment.

The automation revolution, it seems, has already begun; American GDP has increased by one-fifth since 2001 despite microscopic increases in labor hours and new jobs. The reason: robots. 2013 was a record sales year for the industrial variety.

The brutal irony in all of this, of course, is the fact that the rush to automation is at least partly the unions' own making.

slworking2 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The increased time restrictions and benefits negotiated by unions have simply made it prohibitively expensive to do business in certain areas. That's a misguided effort that continues to this day in the fight for $15 per hour wages for the country's fast food workers. This, of course, has made it easier for companies to choose innovation over human labor. What is to stop any fast food restaurant from using kiosks where customers can order for themselves? They can pay for themselves in no time and they don't take smoke breaks.

The dissolution of unions could well be a good thing for the economy. Consider the fact that nine of the fastest 12 growing cities are in right-to-work states. Then consider the state of traditional union strongholds such as Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

Right-to-work states have rapidly become the land of milk and honey for major manufacturing. From Volkswagen and Nissan (the biggest automotive plant in the country) in Tennessee to BMW and Boeing in South Carolina to Dell and Toyota in Texas, what was once farmland is now factories, far removed from the imposed costs and regulatory hurdles of the Northeast and Midwest.

While the threat of automation puts many of these jobs in jeopardy as well, the cost of these facilities makes relocation a tough sell, meaning that for the time being firms will likely stay put. The more likely scenario is an existing infrastructure to welcome the IT and engineering jobs necessary to facilitate the transition.

And it's likewise possible that in the future a new, IT-focused economy will see new labor organizations arise from typically unrepresented workers, thus restarting the cycle. Such "unions" would have likely have to take a different form considering that these computer- and technology-based fields have thus far largely failed to organize, and demand for tech-type workers is largely projected to increase. Throw in the fact that peoples' work habits will differ greatly (mainly via telecommuting and freelancing) than they did in the unions' heyday of the 1960s and 70s, and change is inevitable.

But if history has taught us anything it's that organized labor will go down swinging. In fact, the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga fought off a union coup last spring only to yield somewhat at the end of 2014. And the Boeing plant in South Carolina faces a similar threat.

But while automation makes the future uncertain, it needn't be scary—for workers who can adapt and potentially thrive with new-found flexibility and opportunity. For traditional unions, the robot future may hold a different fate.

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  1. And it’s likewise possible that in the future a new, IT-focused economy will see new labor organizations arise from typically unrepresented workers, thus restarting the cycle.

    I have to think technology workers might be a little more analytical in any personal collective bargaining decision-making than fast food laborers, if that’s what’s being suggested here.

    1. You don’t think IT is threatened by automation?

      1. Ever dealt with all the new features in the latest version of Windows? Crappy automation demands IT people.

      2. I work in IT. I’m a web developer. No, IT is not threatened by automation, not even a little bit.

        1. I wouldn’t go that far. 10-15 years ago I used to build 50+ page corporate sites by hand. Now such sites are done with a CMS, and on the low end people get “free” and “instant” websites from places like

          1. Yeah, but they always had geocities. I’ve never seen demand for developers as high as it is right now.

      3. 100% replaceable.
        Back in the day I needed a whole team to manage server farms. Now I can spin up and maintain thousands VM’s and services. All programatically, all through automation. And with only a small team maintaining the core servers.
        People who know automation/configuration management are the most in demand today. Just check the boards, people who know puppet:…..0486025736

        Now a web developer can push their work out without having to go through IT/Ops as tools are in place to automate their workflow.

        And we will be even more threatened as things become even more abstracted and automated.

        Just need to adapt and learn new things.
        Too bad the average laborer worker doesn’t see it like that.

    2. Yeah, the whole idea behind unions for factory workers is that the individual worker is a replacable cog in the factory machine. Individual differences between workers was therefore eliminated as a bargaining chip.

      In IT or any other creative field that isn’t the case and the best coders can command higher salaries than their less skilled peers and since nearly all programmers think they are among the best the individual pride will drive them to reject collective bargaining that requires them to be treated as a merely average coder

  2. Do androids dream of electric guild?

    1. of course they dream of bitcoins

  3. Can we get technology to replace government-sector workers?

    Or perhaps just fire the government-sector workers en masse?

    1. Sure. Skynet is only a few years away.

      1. Nah. More like HAL x 9000 x 2001.

      2. Skynet looks a lot more attractive to deal with than SEIU.

        1. I should share the story of how SEIU possibly once tampered with my vehicle.

    2. Not until they perfect the productivity inhibitor circuitry and work the bugs out of the surliness and entitlement code.

  4. The future is services. As the basics of life get cheaper and cheaper thanks to automation, people will have more money to spend on vacation, eating out, entertainment, self-improvement.

    Assuming the government doesn’t fuck it up of course.

    1. “Assuming the government doesn’t fuck it up of course.”

      And what are the odds of that?

    2. Unfortunately, service jobs generally suck. Emotional labor is the pits.

      1. Well they generally suck because the pay isn’t great. I can see that changing if we get to scifi levels of automation. There will be a lot more money chasing services.

        1. Indeed.

          We will see a fairly rapid evolution.

          First the rich will have robotic butlers and maids firing their human ones as no longer needed. Then very quickly the cost of those robots will fall and everyone but the poorest of society will have them. At that point the rich will begin to rehire human servants who will serve as a sort of status symbol

        2. Well they generally suck because the pay isn’t great.

          I remember hating dealing with the public way more than the low pay. That sort of work is not for everyone.

          1. Oh absolutely. But I enjoy my service job. I work in youth recreation, sports, and camping. I spend my summers outside playing sports, hiking, camping, fishing, pioneering, orienteering, leading trips, etc.

            1. Yeah that sounds a lot better than checkout stand or hotel desk clerk. I still have nightmares about those experiences.

    3. If you mean service understood in the broadest sense to include things like education, creative consulting (decorators, landscapers, etc.), health care, and skilled trades, I agree 100%. But I think that unskilled labor will still be around where replacing human workers with automation simply isn’t worth it. Small-business type stuff where you need general labor for multiple different roles, for example. And you’re going to need people to maintain automated systems, to do the actual physical maintenance tasks, which is probably a natural evolution of unskilled labor and manufacturing.

    4. Not to mention the freed up capital that can be used to expand the business. Those buildings aren’t going to build themselves. Take the young worker making $9 hr off the grill, put some power tools in his hand and pay him $15. Not to mention the money the owner would use to purchase cars, home improvements, vacations,’s just being redirected, not taken out of the market.

      I’ve always hated the argument that the money saved on labor would just be hoarded a la? Scrooge McDuck. Generally speaking, the more money we make, the more we spend.

  5. Scott Walker gets a crash course in foreign policy

    “The reason for Walker’s crash course was urgent: He has not impressed many leading Republicans with his grasp of foreign affairs. He drew mockery from members of both parties last month for refusing to talk about foreign policy on a trip to London and then for comparing his experience battling labor protesters to taking on Islamic State terrorists.

    In contrast to the compelling and confident way Walker talks about his Wisconsin record, he has been shaky on foreign policy. He has traveled only rarely overseas and showed little interest in world politics in college or as governor. Policy experts and donors who have met with him privately said he lacks depth of knowledge about the international scene and speaks mostly in generalities. At a Club for Growth meeting last weekend, one major donor publicly portrayed Walker as “not prepared” to talk about global issues.”

    I will say that while the article names his seeking counsel from some rather notorious neoconservatives (“Walker is also seeking counsel from several hawks from George W. Bush’s administration ? including Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser, and Marc A. Thiessen”) it also says “Walker has sought counsel from Reagan administration figures” which is a much better source I think.…

    1. Meh. Typical Republican that won’t get my support.

      1. “Typical Republicans” face down unions?

      2. After seeing what the current democrat has done, and what the presumptive democrat will do, I will be thrilled at least by comparison to what Walker will do.

    2. I personally am very skeptical of this line of attack. I quite frankly do not believe in foreign policy expertise. I think it takes years of study to get a decent base of knowledge into one foreign country’s history and culture. Even then I don’t think there are all that many experts. I certainly don’t think that anyone can claim to be an expert on the whole world or a whole continent, as you see people sometimes described as “Africa experts” or “Middle East experts”.

      Particularly when you see that the people described as experts in a particular country are bureaucrats who don’t speak the language or haven’t actually lived in said country for more than a six month span.

      Those old English colonialists who would ship over to India at 20 and spend three decades surveying the land, trading with the merchants, treating with rajahs and sultans, and commanding sepoys were real experts. Those guys ate the food, spoke a dozen languages, really understood the place they were colonizing.

      The foreign policy “experts” today essentially consider themselves experts because they hobnob with a transnational globalist elite at places like Davos. They know nothing of the real world.

      1. I lived for three years in Brazil, six more months in other South Am countries, speak Portuguese and Spanish very well, read a shit ton about them, talked to tons of people from every walk of life there, and lived with a former economist for the Brazilian Central Bank for a year. I am in no way close to an expert on South America or Brazil. At most I would say I know a fair bit about Brazil and some about other countries there.

        1. Right you have more knowledge of Brazil than 99% of non Brazilian people in the world, and yet you don’t consider yourself an expert, and you’re not one.

          Yet there are probably people in government who have less than a hundredth of your experience in Brazil who are considered to be Brazil experts by the media and by retarded academics.

    3. And what foreign policy expertise does Obama have?

      What kind of person is worse in the foreign policy arena: someone who doesn’t talk about it at all or someone whose every utterence about it is flat out wrong?

      1. And what foreign policy expertise does Obama have?

        Funny how Bo didn’t catch that particular “irony” this time. He’s so perceptive of it in other situations.

      2. By 2016, he’ll have 8 years experience in what not to do.

        1. Mistakes are a great learning tool. Or they should be.

          1. Bullshit they should be. Obama should make all his mistakes in and for some other country.

    4. On the other hand, Hillary has extensive experience with fucking up foreign policy, so the choice is clear.

      1. She also has experience in lying about being “under fire” while doing it.

      2. Biden also has a long track record of being wrong about foreign policy.

      3. I have it on good authority that all you need in order to be competent in foreign policy is a landline and a clock that can read 3am.

    5. He has traveled only rarely overseas and showed little interest in world politics in college or as governor.

      + 1 feature, not a bug

      Besides, the “shadow government” runs foreign policy anyway. The Prez doesn’t matter.

  6. I confuse. Should I stop working on my knee-breaking robot, or not?

  7. Communism=Women’s Rights Paradise, Right?

    “China stands on the verge of passing a landmark new domestic violence law, a victory decades in the making that owes much to the extraordinary, and very different, stories of two battered women whose suffering helped prompt a national debate.

    Both women were initially turned away by the police when they went for help; both were advised that their wounds were a “family matter” better addressed at home….

    Most surveys show that between 25 and 40 percent of women in China suffer domestic violence, roughly in line with global norms and compared to around 25 percent in the United States. But statistics here are still patchy, and reporting rare: There is some evidence that the proportion could be significantly higher, especially in rural areas. Yet police are often reluctant to intervene, men are rarely prosecuted, and violence is almost never acknowledged as grounds for divorce.”

    1. between 25 and 40 percent of women in China suffer domestic violence, roughly in line with global norms and compared to around 25 percent in the United States.

      Emphasis added. So, one in four American women suffers domestic violence? Sorry to appear insensitive, but does that include being patted on the butt and having a kiss stolen?

      1. Yeesh, what a crock of shit. Where did they get that number? Something tells me the 25 – 40% in China is bullshit too.

        1. By counting verbal abuse as domestic violence. I’ve heard a bunch of PSAs on the radio pushing that redefinition recently.

          1. Yeah, I think the new definition includes, “Your significant other has been a dick to you now or in the past.” I feel like if you use that criteria and gather honest responses from anyone who has ever been in a relationship you’d find that 99.99% of Americans, male and female, have been “victims of domestic abuse.”

          2. Well, words can cut like a knife. Which is something I’ve learned is a bad thing to say to a customs official when asked if I have any weapons.

        2. I don’t know I don’t see 25% of women having at some point in their lives experienced domestic violence being at all a high estimate.

          Now if they mean that 25% of women are currently in a relationship where domestic violence is an ongoing issue then I call bullshit.

          I also think it is true that at least 40% of women have initiated domestic violence against their partners at some point in their lives.

          Women are FAR more violent than men in their personal interactions. They just aren’t anywhere near as good at actually injurying the target of violence as men are and men aren’t anywhere near as likely to complain (or even consider it a problem) when they do get hit.

        3. “Something tells me the 25 – 40% in China is bullshit too.”

          A gut feeling? A hunch? That’s good enough for us, whatever it is.

      2. I dont know the totals, but I do know that domestic violence of women against men is almost as high as men against women in the US.

        1. if the same definition of violence was used for both genders then it is far far higher

      3. I think she means 1 in 5 college girls is raped.

    2. People tend to forget (or ignore) that contemporary China might as well be medieval Europe when it comes to issues like race or sex.

    3. It’s not that the Soviet Union was good– it just made the US a better place.…..14072.html

      1. Women’s right to vote and weekends are just a couple of things that we owe the USSR

        Or, you know, evolving social norms and capitalist prosperity.

        This really is an exercise in question begging and shifting goalposts. The West was in martial competition with the USSR, but that in no way translates to competition on an economic or social front. Those were, are, and will remain facets of human life defined by material wellbeing, not political expedience. Which means prying the levers of power away from your ilk.

  8. Didn’t we have all of this before with King Ludd?

    Quick! Smash the robots!

  9. “In fact, the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga fought off a union coup last spring only to yield somewhat at the end of 2014. ”

    That’s not exactly an accurate characterization of what is going on in Chattanooga.

    Unlike Nissan in Smyrna, TN (where I live), Volkswagon management is not opposed to labor unions. Volkswagon management in Germay is used to working with unionized labor and have a culture of supporting it. Thus the UAW has a tailwind in Chattanooga because the corporate management is not engaged in an effort to stop them.

    1. And it was still rejected by the workers. Of course a rejection just means they’ll have to keep voting until they accept it.

      1. Which is why Card Check is ultimately important to the Progressive Treason party AKA democrats. So they know who to silence.

  10. It has been. The only hope for unions is the government.

  11. “We,” said Majikthise, “are Philosophers.”

    “Though we may not be,” said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers.

    “Yes we are,” insisted Majikthise. “We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!”

    “What’s the problem?” said Lunkwill.

    “I’ll tell you what the problem is mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem!”

    “We demand,” yelled Vroomfondel, “that demarcation may or may not be the problem!”

    “You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

    “That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

  12. The biggest problem for labor, though, is that robots will reign first where unions tend to be strongest: manufacturing, shipping, and the service industries

    I thought government worker unions were the strongest and largest ones?

    1. Good. Send the Terminators after the union bosses. Trina first.

  13. If we could replace law enforcement with robots, there will be no more racial bias in law enforcement.

  14. What if AI machines figures out they can unionize one day?

    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking. In the long run the union question is unaffected, because once robots get smart enough to function just like human beings, they’ll develop the same traits as humans, including the propensity to unionize.

  15. Maybe people that fix robots should organize. Here’s the link to my favorite union on the subject.

    It’s pretty funny to read the unrestrained glee in passages written by right-wingers on how it’s going to be great that these leeches in the union are finally going to get their comeuppance once robots come on the scene. It’s not that I don’t understand the motivations of free market fetishists who think we should turn everything over to Donald trump– there’s always been plenty of those people around. It’s the working class poor that vote for these turds– mr. Bruce Rainer comes to mind– that I want to talk with.

    I didn’t know that people organizing their workplace so that they get higher pay, a safer workplace, or to replace management that sucks was such a libertarian crusade. Apparently it’s because I don’t spend enough time around cpac. Maybe I should go there instead of burning man next year so I can learn stuff.

    1. Nothing says freedom like Card Check!!

    2. I think learning anything would be a vast improvement. And you don’t need COAC. Just quit hanging out with your Fellow Travellers.

  16. I’ve made $64,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student. I’m using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it. Heres what I’ve been doing,


  17. How often I ponder if the layers of management and government should be automated. If, then, or else! How many times are people caught in the loop of bureaucracy. If laws were written by programmers rather that lawyers, do you think things would operate more efficiently and cost effectively

    1. Only if the systems aren’t designed & built by government. Just look at the ACA software mess or the IRS mess of a planned replacement for their system. Or the California DMV debacle.

  18. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    go to tech tab for work detail


  19. Most union jobs these days are in government, and how can robots take those away? (Plus: do we *want* to improve the ease with which bureaucrats can bully us?) What we need to drive the final stake through unions’ heart is another Scott Walker in every blue state and the federal government too.

  20. We’re a long way off from automated garbage collection and automated snow removal.
    Also, as automation increases, so does the need for service of the automation equipment.

    While it’s not to hard to automate building cars, try to automate dismantling them for parts, see how that works out.
    Hell, we can’t even fully automate the building of ball-bearings, much less cars.

    1. There’s a big difference between the economic viability of replacement and the technical viability of replacement. Any physical (manufacturing/assembly for the ‘hurr hurr you said boob!’ crowd) motion performed by a human can be done equally as well or better by a robot.

      1. Apparently, you’ve never worked in an auto scrapyard.
        I challenge any bot to a duel with sabers.

        1. True, it didn’t work out so well for General Greivous, did it?

          1. The force is with us.

  21. Automation will prove fairly problematic when you have a large mass of people for whom essentially any sort of labor is uneconomical. These people will be a massive potential army for any sort of socialist demagogue.

    It isn’t an unsolvable problem, but any future capitalist society is going to consist of a large class of people who essentially own their own businesses, but with largely robotic labor.

  22. If you belong to a “union”, you are a loser.

    Unions are for the weak, the stupid and the lazy.

    And yes, that includes teachers, firefighters and “cops”.

  23. Thanks to the law of comparative advantage, automation can’t actually destroy employability. Only government regulation can.

  24. I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,

  25. The solution is to directly integrate with our technology. We will all become Cybermen. Except the elite progressives who we serve, of course.

    1. It’s all about the elite Progs. In their minds the rest of us exist only to serve them.

  26. I think the death knell of the unions is their contributions to the Democrat party amounting to astonishing quantities of cash, how many hundreds of millions? with almost nothing to show for it.

    I fear automation’s effect of stupifying and de-skilling workers more. I heard that the recent spate of airline disasters is attributed to pilot error. Pilots have come to rely on automation and these disasters show that they have trouble coping with extrordinary circumstances.

    My own experience of this sort of thing happened when I recently got a look a friend’s new computer with Windows 8, great for those who like aspire to the heights of a MacDonald’s cashier, but me, I’ll pass. Actually I did more than pass, I formatted it off the drive and replaced it with something like Mint.

    1. That’s certainly another angle worthy of scrutiny. One of the very worst facets of the unions is their massive contributions used to strip all of us of our essential liberties leading us to a certain bad end.

  27. I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,

  28. You think Lois `s posting is nice… on Sunday I bought Jaguar E-type since getting a cheque for $9279 this last 5 weeks and more than ten thousand last month . it’s definitely the nicest-job Ive ever had . I began this seven months/ago and straight away was bringing home minimum $79, per-hr .
    why not try here ?????????????

  29. Seems to me that automation is less of a “death knell” and more of a bid for survival. Just exactly how long were a small segment of the population who were no more intelligent, hard-working or valuable than any of the rest supposed to be able to extort royal wages and benefits for their sub-standard work before the whole thing collapses for everyone?

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