Technology and the impact on workers’ wages under capitalism

Owners use technology to scale back the workforce and cut costs while increasing production.

Photo: Bill Hackwell
Whether from science fiction, pop-culture, or a children’s cartoon like the Jetsons, many of us have a vision of the future rich with high-tech gadgetry that will simplify our lives, make work easier or provide us with more leisure time.

The potential of these things and more lies in the technological advancement of society. Many of us have glimpsed it with the advent of cell phones, email and the internet. When technology is used only to expand capitalist production and not for human benefit, it becomes a tool for greater exploitation.

This point was brought into sharp focus recently in my search for a new job. After 16 years, my job in the “tech sector” was eliminated. I found myself looking for another job, which would use some of the skills I had acquired over the years. One job I held through the mid-1980s was operating a printing press.

After several months of searching, I was able to land an employment offer from a “dot com” company to operate a digital printing press. The offer in 2004 constituted about the same hourly wage I earned running a press in 1984. This fact caused me to make a comparison of the circumstances, and examine why this might be so.

Wages down, productivity up

In 1984, I worked in a unionized printing plant, with good healthcare and retirement benefits and more than a dozen paid holidays. The workweek was 34.5 hours, with overtime after seven hours per day. Today, I have basic health care at a modest employee contribution, no retirement, and six holidays per year. Pursuant to new California overtime laws, I receive overtime only after 10 hours per day or 40 hours per week.

In the 1980s, I learned my skill over years of work through a series of apprenticeships. I was taught to make numerous fine adjustments to the press in order to register the colors, maintain ink and water balance for proper color, and calibrate the air flow, height and pressures for feeding the paper.

Today, these tasks are automated, monitored and adjusted by computers and sensors. The training period is only three weeks.

Since I am now taking home nearly the same wage I received 20 years ago, I was curious to see how the cost of living has changed over the years. For every dollar I earned in 1984, I would need to earn $1.84 today to keep pace with inflation. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Inflation Calculator) Why is my actual earning power today, including reduced benefits, only half of what it was 20 years ago?

In his groundbreaking 1986 work “High Tech, Low Pay,” Sam Marcy analyzed this trend from a Marxist perspective. “This is a social trend wholly unanticipated by those who had expected the great advances and discoveries to have brought about ‘upward mobility.’ This is what was looked for from the scientific and technological revolution. Instead, all of the studies disclose a clear trend in the opposite direction.”

Marcy’s analysis agrees with my personal experience, but you have to dig to find evidence that it holds true in the greater workforce. On the surface, most information available on the Internet doesn’t square with Marcy’s conclusion. It says that when the technological level of a job increases, so does the pay. Why is that not the case with me?

The statistics are deceiving. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1986 there were 274,000 printing machine operators with a median wage of $366 per week. By 2002, the number shrank to 199,000 operators and a median salary of $558 per week. It appears that operators are making more money now than in 1986 because the median wage is much higher. However, to keep pace with inflation, printing machine operators should be making well over $600 per week. The actual wages earned have been reduced, although workers’ productivity has increased tremendously.

From 1987-2002, worker productivity grew a whopping 76 percent in the publishing industries.

The fact that workers are competing for fewer jobs is one aspect of the lower real wage today. Fewer workers are needed to produce even greater amounts today because of better technology.

Worker with a traditional offset press, 1984.

Photo: Bill Hackwell
Job loss inevitable under capitalism

In addition, many jobs previously required to complete the printing process have been eliminated. At one time it required a typesetter, a designer, a “stripper” to prepare photographic negatives, a printing plate maker and a printing machine operator. At my workplace today, all of these have been eliminated except my job—the printing machine operator.

The typesetter and designer have been replaced by the unpaid labor of the customer providing the files to be printed. The function of the “stripper” has been completely replaced by computer software that I operate. Printing plates are no longer required. In essence, five paid jobs have been reduced to one.

Marcy also explains this part of the high-tech phenomenon, debunking what most pundits say: “The distinctive feature of this particular phase of capitalist development, the scientific-technological phase, is that while it enormously raises the productivity of labor, it for the first time simultaneously lowers the general wage patterns and demolishes the more high-skilled, high-paid workers. It enhances the general pauperization of the population.”

What are my co-workers and I to do, not just to stem this negative trend, but to realize the full promise of the technological future?

In the early 1800s, English textile workers were faced with emerging technologies that threatened not only their jobs, but their way of life. Known as the Luddite movement, they protested and destroyed machines and mills. After industrial sabotage was made a capital crime, some protesters were executed and others imprisoned. The movement was suppressed. We need a better way. Destroying technology won’t stem its advancement or benefit the workers who operate it.

Today we can organize unions to give us the power of collective bargaining to limit the degree of exploitation. We could gain better wages, and perhaps some measure of security against future layoffs. This is certainly the avenue most available, but at best these gains would be temporary and inadequate to protect us from the business owner’s greed. Owners wage tremendous fights against workers’ attempts to form unions, making every gain for us a battle.

It is the capitalist system that makes advancing technology a burden on workers’ wages and living standards. If we can organize ourselves and our fellow workers with the ultimate goal of overturning the system that causes us to lose our jobs in order to maximize profits, we stand to really see the technology work for us instead of against us. When we as workers own and control the means of production, humankind can fully realize the beneficial wonders of technological development.

This won’t happen overnight, but raising awareness about the real problems that plague workers today is a necessary step.

Related Articles

Back to top button