What should we say about new technology at work?

The issue of how radical working-class activists, including climate campaigners, should respond to the introduction of new technologies in the workplace is becoming more and more relevant as more technologies become realities.

Should we support the introduction of all new technologies because of their potential capacity to reduce emissions, or oppose them because their implementation and maintenance often causes more emissions than they save? Or should the issue of emissions be secondary to the effect they have on workers?

To open a discussion, we republish this article by a tube worker member of the Marxist group Workers’ Liberty:

One of London Underground’s pretexts for cutting jobs and slashing ticket office opening times is that new technology, in the form of the ‘Oyster’ smartcard ticketing system, has significantly reduced purchases at ticket office windows. There are several reasons why this ‘reason’ is disingenuous:

* The number of transactions at the ticket office window has not reduced simply because of Oyster, but because of a deliberate policy by London Underground to drive business away. LU has, for example, imposed a £5 minimum Oyster top-up only at the ticket office window; has advertised alternative outlets such as newsagents; and enticed people to buy online by offering free iTunes!

• LU claims that transactions at the ticket office window have fallen by 28%, but measures this from early 2006, when it cut ticket office opening hours!

• It plans to cut ticket office opening hours by 35%.

• It has changed the measure by which it decides whether a ticket office is open in any particular hour from 15 minutes of ticket-selling activity to 30 minutes.

• The Oyster system has many problems and difficulties, and many passengers, for example occasional, foreign, disabled or elderly ones, may find it hard to use alternative outlets such as machines and prefer a personal service.

But beyond these immediate and specific issues, there are deeper issues about charging for public transport and about new technology.

If socialists ran public transport, we would make it free. So there would be no ticket offices or ticket-selling jobs. But we would not cut jobs overall; we would more staff in other areas of the station; we would build new lines and extensions which would need staff; and we would cut working hours.

But London Underground is not scrapping or even cutting fares. It continues to charge the highest fares of any European capital city, but is just making it harder to pay them at the station! The new Oyster system could have been used to reduce queues and improve the service; instead, it is being used as a pretext to cut it.

Transport companies often target new technology into ticketing, even while they leave safety and operational systems in the 19th century.

Improved technology should be able to make our life at work easier, perhaps reducing our working hours or lightening our workload. But the employers usually see it as an excuse to get rid of us, or attack us, instead.

So if new technology comes with attacks on our working conditions, should we oppose it?

Rail workers can hardly be against new technology as such, or we’d be demanding our own abolition in order to save the jobs of horse-drawn carriage drivers! In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx saw the “new technology” of railways as highly progressive. “The real fruit of [class] battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever — expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication…

“That union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians [wage-workers], thanks to railways, achieve in a few years”.

And we’d rather work on new trains, in newly-rebuilt stations, with modern kit, than under old conditions. New technologies create new possibilities and make old things faster, more reliable, and often easier.

But in a capitalist, profit-driven society, new technologies are introduced in order to improve profits. What is introduced, and how, is decided by profitability — by how new technologies can help capital in its eternal quest to squeeze more work from us, and to increase management control.

Marx analysed this for the new technology of the 19th century — mostly steam-powered factory production. On the face of it, the new machinery eased labour, but it had actually helped the bosses to increase work rates.

The increased productivity of new technologies meant that the capitalist class could produce commodities with less labour-time. They needed less of the workers’ time to produce the goods to pay the workers’ wages. They could have cut working hours.

But instead, they kept people on the same hours and kept the money from the extra products for themselves. Less of your working day would be spent producing value to pay your wages, and more producing value to make profit for your boss. Capitalist new technology has an inbuilt drive to increase inequality. It also has an inbuilt drive to produce surges of unemployment. If new technology makes production faster, the bosses sack “surplus” workers.

Further, wrote Marx, “machinery… is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital”. It does that by making labour more easily replaceable.

But while doing all this, new technology builds up both the technical and the human basis for socialism. It means that when the working class takes control of society, we will have the resources available to meet human need and to abolish poverty. As Marx said, new technology “provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one”.

So? New technology — yes; but we have to fight for control over the terms and conditions under which it is introduced; for shorter hours and easier work conditions rather than job cuts and increased managerial control.

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