There is much media coverage and discussion about the impending ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the likely threat to jobs from automation. One current example is the attempt by Southern Rail to remove guards from trains. Digital technology is also being used to continue the industrial tradition of Taylorism (very detailed regimentation and deskilling of work), through the ‘gig economy’ and various forms of surveillance of workers. We believe that the threat to livelihoods from automation is real, although changes may take place gradually.
Here again, the Lucas Aerospace workers’ approach can be a great help. Like many other workers in the 1970s, they were facing the deskilling of their jobs and probable redundancy, as the result of the introduction of new computer-controlled machines. The Lucas Aerospace workers recognised that this issue was a key part of the problem with the entire industrial capitalist system, and in 1981 they forced the company to accept a moratorium for one year on the introduction of new technology.
They insisted that human skills are central to their idea of socially useful production. In fact, one of their 3 key criteria for socially useful production was: ‘The product must be capable of being produced in a labour-intensive manner, so as not to give rise to structural unemployment’. In their view, production methods are just as important as what is actually produced in deciding whether production is socially useful or not.
One of the key innovations of the Lucas Plan was the development of ‘human-centred’ technology, in which machinery was designed to be as much as possible under the control of the worker, and to utilise human skills rather than trying to embody them in computer software. This tradition of technology development has continued until the present in many countries.
In the current situation, this approach is needed more than ever. The New Lucas Plan working group wants to make common cause with workers threatened by automation and digital Taylorism. There is nothing inevitable about the introduction of new technologies, as the campaign against GM foods showed – technology development is a series of political as well as technical choices.
The energy crisis and the need to combat climate change also force us to reconsider what we produce and how we produce it. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the drive for automation are based on the assumption of availability of unlimited supplies of electrical power. In our view, the ideas of socially useful production and Just Transition require us to use methods that are dependent upon human labour and skills, and that provide people with livelihoods.
The New Lucas Plan automation working group wants to work with trade unionists and anyone who shares these ideas. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.