What if we welcomed disruption?

Those of us in the traditional labor movement have spent years feeling besieged. It seems like every day, there is another attack on the ability of average working people to earn a fair wage, to get medical care when we need it, to retire with some semblance of security & dignity. It’s not that surprising that our initial reaction to technological change in the workplace is suspicion.

It isn’t because workers are inherently opposed to the improvements that can be wrought by technology. I’ve worked with a lot of Certified Nursing Assistants over years—and most of them would agree that they prefer Hoyer Lifts (when they work!) to back injuries and repetitive strains.

So what if we flipped the script on our automatic response to technology, and thought, “does this make workers’ ability to do their jobs better, faster or safer? If yes, then let’s figure out how to make it work.” It seems doubtful, for example, that large numbers of surgeons are protesting the increased use of robots in surgery, or wearing Google Glass to be able to see CAT scans without moving their heads, if it improves their ability to save people’s lives.

The real problem, of course, isn’t a technology problem. It’s the problem that comes from living in a society that says people only have value if they work, and that they have the greatest value if they work full-time. If you’re a surgeon, you’re probably pretty sure that the value you bring to your work will not be disrupted by robots (whether that’s an accurate assumption remains to be seen, of course). But if you’re a factory worker who has been seen as “interchangeable” since the advent of some new machine or another, robots seem terrifying.

No matter how low wages for workers fall, the cost of paying for humans is eventually going to be much higher than the cost of robots that can, with maintenance, essentially work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Even Chinese manufacturing companies, which most of us view as the ultimate low-pay employers, are looking to expand their use of robots in order to save money.

That leaves us with two choices—either fight encroaching technology (which increasingly seems like a losing battle) or fight to change some of people’s basic assumptions about work in our society.

It’s a hard thing to envision, for a movement that is, at its core, based on employer-employee relationships. How do we move from making an argument that “all workers have value” to an argument that is essentially, “all workers have value, even when they’re not working?”

On the other hand, doesn’t it seem like it might be time to have a dream of what we could gain from technological advances, rather than just fearing what we might lose?

After all, the shareholder-first-last-and-only economy is already fully-engaged, on their side of that argument. We know what they want—more flexibility, in their workforce, with less long-term obligation. What are we willing to demand, in exchange?

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