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.