How technology helps erode labor strength

Updated
Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation December 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan.
Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation December 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Income inequality in America has exploded over the past few decades. But there’s considerable disagreement about the cause of the shift: are impersonal forces like globalization and technological development to blame, or policies designed to disproportionately benefit the rich?

A recently published study from Israeli sociologist Tali Kristal says that labor’s share of overall income is declining because workers are losing the power to fight for their own interests.

Kristal found that the biggest inequality spikes have occurred within industries where unions have traditionally held a lot of influence: manufacturing, transportation, and, to a lesser extent, construction. Partly that’s because the labor movement as a whole has seen its power sharply decline since the mid-twentieth century, but Kristal sees another culprit as well, which she calls “class-biased technological change.”

Technological development is not apolitical or self-directed, she says. New tools are always made by human beings, and those humans have their own politics and agendas. Institutions that fund technological development also tend to have a particular motive, whether it’s winning a war, curing a disease, or increasing corporate profits. Class-biased technological change simply means the sort of development which “[favors] capitalists and high-skilled workers while eroding most rank-and-file workers’ bargaining power,” in Kristal’s words.

A good example of class-biased technological change is various kinds of factory automation, which can render some manufacturing jobs obsolete. But Kristal also highlights new workplace monitoring tools and increasingly sophisticated workplace control strategies, which have given managers unprecedented power to “use more legal and illegal anti-union tactics, such as illegal discharge of union activists, surveillance of union leaders, captive-audience meetings with top management, and refusal to negotiate a collective agreement.”

Kristal does not mention Frederick Winslow Taylor in her paper, but his ghost haunts the margins. At the turn of the twentieth century, Taylor became one of history’s first professional management consultants, explicitly advising factory owners on how they could break the power of their employees’ craft unions. These days, Americans tend to regard Taylor’s most influential innovations, such as the assembly line and the role of the professional middle manager, as benign improvements to efficiency; few remember that the assembly line was designed in part to take control over the speed of production out of the hands of workers and put it into the hands of management.

If Kristal’s study is to be believed, Taylorism is alive and well in the United States. Fittingly, America is now experiencing levels of inequality last seen during the life of its inventor.

How technology helps erode labor strength

Updated