If you’re anything like me, you may think the world of science fiction and the world of work are light years apart. I mean, I enjoy both science fiction films and literature, and I also enjoy work. It’s just that the two of them seldom, if ever, seem to come together.
However, truth is often stranger than fiction, and the truth is that in workplaces around the world, robots have been steadily marching forward as they slowly replace human workers. True, they don’t have R2-D2 or C-3P0 capabilities—yet—but they have been playing an ever-increasing role in automating the workplace.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the manufacturing sector. One of the major auto parts manufacturing hubs in North America stretches along Highway 401 in southwestern Ontario. This also happens to be where I grew up.
Out of high school, it made sense to seek employment at one of the various auto parts manufacturers in my area. The wages were good, there was a good prospect for available work until retirement, and it was generally safe. At the time, if you worked in the auto parts industry, you could look forward to having a stable and secure source of income to raise a family.
That all changed—and it changed rapidly. I remember standing on a very large metal stamping press, weighing hundreds of tonnes, along with approximately 10 other people who were all involved in the production of the various stamped products. As I stood there, I looked over to another press that had been shut down temporarily while a maintenance crew installed a completely automated system—a system designed to do exactly what we were doing.
This all happened 16 years ago. Today, all of the stamping presses where I used to work have been automated. These stamping lines are in the midst of a large welding facility employing a legion of welders—robot welders.
The automation trend is nothing new. It’s been advancing relentlessly since the early 1900s. In its wake, thousands of workers suddenly find themselves out of work and ill-equipped for the new jobs technology is creating.
The suggested solutions thus far overwhelmingly look to our governments to solve the problem of the mismatch in skills and jobs. Certainly, governments can and will play a role. But unions also have a role to play.
At CLAC, we are committed to preparing our members for the difficulties technological change will impose on workers. We are committed to increased training in industries and technologies that will need human capacities. And we will stand together with our members as we weather the difficult storms of progress.