Automation must be good for society not share-holders

Peter Sharma
Peter Sharma

#stuc19 Trade unions have a vital role in developing responses to workplace changes driven by automation and the STUC will bring together those unions most affected to ensure that their members can benefit and prosper from these changing technologies.

That was the message from Congress as it backed calls from Community and Unite to work with employers and the Scottish Government to make sure that the Government’s £48 million investment benefits workers and keeps their interests to the fore.

Supporting, UNISON’s Peter Sharma said that technological change has been a constant feature of the industrial age.

“And let’s be clear. People are only employed either when machines can’t do the work – or where they are cheaper than machines. The advent of Artificial Intelligence doesn’t change this,” warned Peter.

He said that collectively, we have a wealth of experience and history on this issue and we should be looking to mine that history and learn its lessons about how we have tackled these issues before.

“Everything digital happens in the material world – on a material desktop computer, or laptop or tablet or phone. These in turn rely on a vast infrastructure of power supply and cabling.

“And all of it needs to be assembled from individual components that need to be manufactured from constituents that are ultimately grown or dragged from the ground.

“The overwhelming bulk of this labour is still being done by people,” added Peter.
He accepted that a great deal of low skilled, semi skilled routine work is going to go as is a lot of currently deemed high skilled routine work in places like legal offices or hospital labs.

“And while the sort of upskilling and retraining measures mentioned in the motion are absolutely necessary – they won’t be sufficient. We cannot retrain or upskill our way out of this,” he warned, adding that what is needed is an extension of workplace democracy.

“Where employers adopt new technology, many will prioritise cutting costs without regard for the consequences for staff – far less the wider community.

“Contesting that will require workers, collectively, to have significantly more say in how their workplace operates.

“We need to make the nature and quality of work the big political question. And that includes a discussion about what labour is deemed productive.

“Automation is something that is happening, and will continue.

“Our task is to build and then use our own strength in a way that will allow automation to be good for society – as opposed to simply good for shareholders.

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