“Solidarity Forever”: Robots, Workers, and Profitability

Don Sutherland (March 2018)

Everyone I know with any form in the Australian union movement loves the song “Solidarity Forever”. The song includes these 2 lines:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn 

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn

What do these words mean for real working lives in our times?

This is a relevant question amid the new wave of production and other technologies, including robots and “cobots”.

The introduction of robots and other automated or semi automated machines into work processes is nearly absolutely controlled by employers. The Fair Work Act 2009 prohibits new technology like robots from being a negotiated issue in enterprise bargaining. It is wrong but it is simply unquestioned that employers should have this absolute control and that, therefore, nothing of any import can go wrong.

The second point is that the introduction of robots and other automated machines is a capital investment. There is a consequence to this that can only be fully grasped by workers and their organisations by chewing over those beloved words in “Solidarity Forever”, and understanding their 21st century economic meaning from the standpoint of workers.

Without getting too technical about it, what those words say is that all accumulated and new wealth derives from the application of human labour by workers.

Therefore, from the standpoint of workers, capital investment does not create wealth, it is a part of the total wealth that is created by workers through their labour. Specifically, it is a part of the total “profit” that is taken by the boss after paying wages and associated benefits to workers. It’s application is intended to enable employer-controlled workers produce new wealth that can be expropriated.

Commonly, workers are “taken on” to use tools and machines in factories and other work sites, to transform raw material from nature, or partially finished products, into goods for exchange and sale in the market place. Nowadays these include algorithms embedded in software or that enable the function of machines. (Most of these algorithms originate in the knowledge and thought of workers that is acquired and applied during their work process …. a separte discussion.)

Connecting the dots: robots – investment – human labour – total profit – profitability

The product (or service) must be useful but to contain money wealth it must also be “saleable”: that is, it has a use value and an exchange value intertwined within it. Out of the sale, the human labour put in leads to a total money value that is new wealth, and inside that is total profit, and also total wages. The total wages must be less than the total value that has been created by the worker. The process of work is in its essence a process of exploitation of workers by their employers.

The owners of the machines etc, and for set periods every day also of the labour potential of the workers, obsesses over whether what they have taken, the “total profit”, is enough relative to “their” investment that has been made possible in the first place by the labour of the workers they have employed.

It’s hard to think of an employer who is not obsessed with his / her profit, especially relative to the investment made, and in relationship to their competitor(s). (Unfortunately and incorrectly, the importance of profits, and profitability, is skated over or ignored even by most ”modern” labour economists.)

In dollar terms, profitability is shown by the total profit relative to the investment put into it. As an equation, profitability = total profit / capital investment.

So, what does this mean for the introduction of “robots” or “cobots “?

Robots are a capital investment by the employer, that seek to reduce labour costs and increase profits.

They are meant to make an impact on productivity: the same or more output relative to the quantity of human labour hours required to make it happen. However, in contradiction, they are also an immediate and longer term threat to profitability, the primary obsession of every employer.

With robots the labour time of fewer workers is necessary to produce the total wealth that includes the profit share and the (reduced) wages share, thus the proportion of capital investment increases relative to the input of workers, and to total profit.

For example, in one “moment”, profitability might mean total profit of 150 units divided by total capital investment of 300 units. Profitability equals 0.5. In the next “robot moment” that follows, the new capital investment increases relative to the human labour hours required (hopefully, putting aside breakdowns for the moment). So 150 units is divided by, say, 320. Profitability falls.

This is a tendency, it is not absolute. To reduce or prevent the tendency, wages and associated labour costs must be driven down no matter what the productivity.

This is why the Fair Work Act 2009 is working well for employers. It provides employers with those controls across the economic system. Thus, under 21st century capitalism, there is no logic that enables it to provide for reduced working hours in general while improving and equalizing the standard of living. To make that happen would require more universal and more powerful workers’ struggles through their unions, or in other ways.

This is a real dilemma for employers (and their champions): in 21st century capitalism (just like all capitalism before it) increasing the productivity of labour through more automated machines – robots – tends to reduce the profitability that all employers crave, and may even cause or hasten a renewed economic crisis that causes more unemployment and income security for the 90% plus.

But that’s the “logic” of a capitalist system. Production is not for social needs and values but to provide profitability and the accumulation of wealth for the minority who own and control the machines. In this system robots and “cobots” drive more insecurity.

Interim and ultimate solutions?

If you have a problem with this logic, then “it’s time” to cease the hypocrisy of singing those key words in “Solidarity Forever”.

More seriously, “solutions” like the “universal basic income” will be naïve and ultimately impractical.

Nevertheless, the real potential of automation does lie in reducing and sharing more equally productive working time.

The new leisure time that goes with that must be rooted in zero poverty and shared access to a bounty of socially and personally enriching activities. However, for that to be realised the 90 per cent, or a much bigger part of it, must take the necessary actions in support of the specific demands towards replacing with their collective selves the current owners of the machines and the systems that produce the 21st century necessities of life.

It’s worth looking at what the Corbyn and Sanders movements are coming up with in this light (and others in other parts of the world). And what the ACTU, the ALP and the Greens have to say about it. For me, that’s for another time and a good deal more reading and discussion, some of which might be found in the submissions to the current Senate Enquiry into the Future of Work.

One thought on ““Solidarity Forever”: Robots, Workers, and Profitability

  1. harry glasbeek

    Thank you, Don, for pointing to the nature of exploitation. Your recommendation that we should look to Sanders/ Corbyn approaches is useful. You will know of the writings of Paul Mason who makes a serious effort at dealing with new modes of production from a working class perspective. They are thoughtful, even if not always optimistic. My own response is of a more short-term nature. I would urge workers and their allies to concentrate on the prohibition of bargaining on the introduction of new technologies, such as robots . This campaign could be centred on the need for workers to get more say OVER the enterprise’s operations , rather than fight to have more say on HOW TO DO things that the enterprise wants done. Thus the campaign should argue that, as robots affect the work environment of remaining workers, they should be subject to worker veto over decisions to introduce them; this could be complemented by a campaign that demands that, as the introduction of any new technologies or modes of production may affect the environment and/or health and safety of workers, it should be subjected to workers’ veto. Analogous experiemnts are to be found in Scandinavia. The campaigns could be justified to workers and the public on basic democratic arguments, making them a potentially powerful tool to make inroads on employer prerogatives.
    Harry Glasbeek


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