by Bill Onasch
Recalling the ‘Triple Revolution’
The trucks pictured above are driverless and in service now. A headline for a Los Angeles Times story reads, “Robots could replace 1.7 million American truckers in the next decade.” Uber, whose app-driven “ride sharing” scam has already wrecked traditional taxi service, is determined to eliminate their dissatisfied human “independent contractor” drivers with driverless cars. Pizzas are being delivered by drones. And Amazon, the pioneer of online shopping that shuttered so many brick and mortar stores, is in the vanguard of using robots to displace pickers, packers, and loaders in logistics. These job extinctions are labeled “labor saving.”
The historic achievement of the Internet is being perverted by ubiquitous, often frivolous, sometimes dangerous, but always highly profitable schemes to carve out proprietary diversions from this revolution in information and communication. The “free” FaceBook, sure to reward you with many new “friends,” magically made its founders billionaires pronto and they have just launched a new classified “marketplace.” Google, who invented the search engine that transformed research, was recently nearly shut down by an unanticipated explosion of players of Pokemon Go–a game that has actually claimed lives through distracted misadventure and criminal ambush.
Though slower than the interactive voice communication invented by Alexander Graham Bell, texting has become so addictive many drivers—even professionals piloting trucks, buses and trains–can’t resist it during their journeys. This is a major factor in the recent rise in traffic fatalities. Their habit is encouraged by the prominent Internet ready video displays in almost all new cars and trucks. Makers of “smart” phones have the ability to disable texting in moving vehicles–but no authority has yet suggested they implement it.
Congress did mandate all railroads to equip their trains with Positive Train Control technology that can prevent many deadly accidents like the recent one in Hoboken. But safety measures are not profitable, only costly, and the carriers have forced many extensions of deadlines for this life-saving rule.
Pondering this corruption of science and technology in capitalist America reminded me of some short-lived forward looking discussions in my youth.
Those were framed by a “public memorandum” to President Johnson in March, 1964. It was signed by eminent scientists and technologists, economists and scholars, pacifists and union leaders, civil rights and both old and New left activists, who identified themselves as the Ad Hoc Committee on Triple Revolution.
The three revolutions they cited were Cybernation, Weaponry, and Human Rights. While certainly not Luddites, they advocated the gains in productivity through utilization of computers and robots be used to give workers more time for education, culture, and leisure.
Weaponry “advances” had led to nuclear war being prevented only by an arms race based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which was indeed madness, a threat we all still try to bury in our subconscious.
And nearly two decades after the end of the most devastating war in history, that was purportedly fought for Four Freedoms, they noted much of the world, including many in the USA, were suffering repression and poverty–with many fighting back.
Some of the social goals they put forward at least superficially resembled views expressed by Karl Marx in the previous century. But clearly they were proposing them as reforms within the present social system and addressed them to the most powerful head of state in the “free world.”
LBJ was as disinterested in Triple Revolution as he was in a briefing by government scientists about the same time on Global Warming. He was preoccupied with the sometimes bloody Civil Rights struggles in the Jim Crow South, soon to spread north as well, and his preparations for launching the Vietnam war. Those two issues would dominate American political discourse over the next decade–and in different forms remain in play today.
After some initial fanfare at its release, most of the discussion of Triple Revolution took place in academic and economist circles, above my pay grade—and the old left, where I encountered them. The premier Marxist theoretical magazine Monthly Review devoted an entire special issue to the ad hoc memorandum. James P Cannon, then “retired” National Chairman Emeritus of the Socialist Workers Party urged the new levy of young people replenishing the party after a long dry spell to promote and participate in this Big Picture examination of underlying challenges to the American super-power–then at the peak of providing “middle class prosperity.”
The Sixties Youth Radicalization did have a big impact on two of the “Revolutions”–building single issue civil rights and antiwar mass movements. Two of the Ad Hoc signers, Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden were prominent leaders of SDS when they organized the first mass march against the Vietnam war in April, 1965.
But the Cyber Revolution didn’t spark a lot of interest. This was not so much that the Ad Hoc proponents were premature as American capitalism was slow to invest in new technology—with the important exceptions of weaponry and the Space Race. There was little need for them to do so until the Seventies.
The USA and Canada were the only major industrialized countries that didn’t suffer at least substantial damage to their infrastructure during World War II. That meant they would lead in the rebuilding of the economies of war torn Europe and Japan as well as satisfying tremendous domestic demand that had been pent up for fifteen years of Depression and War. They didn’t pause to upgrade their technology during this boom that lasted about another twenty years.
Shortly after the Ad Hoc Memorandum was published, I went to work for a few months at US Steel South Works in Chicago. I was assigned to Open Heath #2. #2 had been built in 1890, had been shut down for several years during the Depression, reopened for World War II and mothballed again at the end of the Korean War. It was being fired up for what would be the last time for the build up in preparation for the launch of the Vietnam war.
Open hearth technology was already obsolete. While Europeans often tried to exactly replicate residential and commercial structures that had been destroyed they rebuilt their industries using the latest technology. German and Belgian steelmakers were using much more efficient continuous casting in the Sixties. The French invented self-rising cranes for high-rise construction. By the Seventies, U.S. industry could no longer profitably compete with the losers of World War II for most nonsubsidized or non tariff-protected work.
Unlike the government directed crash industrial mobilization during World War II, beginning in the late Seventies the American ruling class carried out a massive restructuring of the economy more gradually, with varying tempo in each sector. Nowhere did they consider offering to share the increased productivity of cutting edge technology with the working class. Instead they closed thousands of old plants and replaced them with new ones in other locations employing far fewer, and usually unorganized workers.
As much of the work was shifted to warmer locations in Texas and Arizona they left behind a Rust Belt from the Midwest to the East Coast. Bruce Springsteen sang ballads about their plight. We started hearing foolish talk about the De-Industrialization of America, that we now have a Service Economy.
It is true that there are fewer blue collar job opportunities—especially semi- and unskilled assembler, machine operator, and laborer work—than fifty years ago. But even with much offshoring of work over the past three decades, American workers are building more cars, assembling more appliances, extracting and refining more fuels, milling more grain, butchering more livestock, and transporting more cargo by air, rail, and truck than ever. The USA still can boast the world’s biggest economy, is still an industrial powerhouse—and has created the richest ruling class of all time.
Most of the trade union bureaucracy adopted the defeatist position that you can’t fight “progress.” Few fought for a shorter work week with no cut in pay. The more competent ones became adept at negotiating severance agreements and good pay for those skills still needed to run the new technology.
Nor has there been any legislative action. The standard forty hour full-time work week has not been changed in the lifetime of nearly all readers. “Normal” Social Security retirement age keeps growing older.
As the Establishment convinced younger generations that their only hope in the Service Economy was to get a college education, the cost of getting a degree skyrocketed with student loan debt now exceeding car loans. This windfall didn’t go to faculty—contingent college professors are partnering with fast food workers in fighting for a 15 dollar minimum wage and union representation.
It seems high time to revive, after that earlier false start, discussion of the Triple Revolution while adding a necessary fourth—climate change. After this lengthy introduction, from time to time I will offer some ideas for how such discussions might be framed. If you have something to suggest you can contact me at billonasch[at]kclabor.org.
Dakota Fissures Crack House of Labor Foundation
The first e-mail message I saw after finally posting the Labor & Climate Extra was from my friend Ann Montague out in Oregon forwarding a story on the Common Dreams site I had not yet seen–As Tribes Fight Pipeline, Internal AFL-CIO Letter Exposes ‘Very Real Split’. It is particularly relevant to what I wrote in the September 13 WIR about the protests initiated by Tribes, and receiving wide solidarity from environmental, human rights, and labor organizations–driving a deeper wedge in to the trade unions.
Major AFL-CIO affiliates–Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, and National Nurses United–took strong principled stands in support of the protesters. So did some non-AFL unions such as the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers and the Service Employees International Union. The Pride at Work constituency group and the Labor Network for Sustainability also weighed in on the side of the demonstrators.
This solidarity infuriated the Building Trades bureaucrats who were eager to go forward on temporary jobs for their dues-payers–including desecration of tribal burial lands. They called them out through a confidential internal letter to the heads of all AFL unions from Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, representing 14 crafts. It also slandered the protesters as threatening violence against union workers. The only violence exhibited at Standing Rock was by the company’s hired “security” thugs. It was no coincidence the AFL’s official statement endorsing the pipeline and chastising its opponents soon followed this scurrilous letter.
To the chagrin of the not easily embarrassed pro-pipeline bureaucrats, brother McGarvey’s missive was leaked to Jon Queally, a conscientious journalist at the Common Dreams website. He verified its authenticity before posting a PDF copy online and collected a lot of “no comments.” One of the few to speak on record was the never bashful Rose Ann DeMoro of the NNU, “What we’re seeing here is the pipeline company—and this is nothing new—pitting workers against workers.” He also quotes labor historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability Jeremy Brecher,
“The core of the problem is that the AFL-CIO has consistently opposed significant cuts to climate-destroying projects, like Dakota Access, while failing to adequately advocate for policies that would actually address climate change in a worker-friendly way.”
Finally getting these divisions at the top out in the open is progress. The next indicated step is involving the union ranks—and unorganized workers, and students, who have a stake in the debates around class and climate justice.
October ESFL Events
Our readers in the Twin Cities region should check out the as usual impressive October schedule of events at the East Side Freedom Library in St Paul.
That’s all for this week.
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