The Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies
Organizing Our Futures:
A Public Forum on Labor, Knowledge and the Economy
Ensuring workers benefit from the emerging knowledge-based economy.



Intro |  When & Where |  Program |  Participants & Supporters |  Background Information
Organizing our Futures: Labor, Knowledge and the Economy

For more information read the following essays:

The Road to Good Jobs (PDF format), from the Nov. 2006 edition of The American Prospect,
by Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect

Labor pains: The role of the worker in a technological age,
by Dan Jacoby, Harry Bridges Endowed Chair in Labor Studies

Knowledge and the Economy: Why labor must work with educators,
by Dan Jacoby, Harry Bridges Endowed Chair in Labor Studies

Thoughts on the Engineer of 2020: An Early 21st Century [Aerospace] Industry Perspective (PDF fromat),
by John H. McMasters, Technical Fellow The Boeing Company

Labor pains: The role of the worker in a technological age
By Dan Jacoby
Seattle Times, Labor Day -- Sunday, September 4, 2005
Guest columnist, Special to The Times
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

Over the next 50 years, labor's current disagreement on organizing strategies will likely be overshadowed by a darker, more-pressing question: "Does society still need people to work?"

To achieve a worthwhile future, labor will need to organize our emerging knowledge-based economy to ensure that the development of human potential is both our principal objective and our main source of employment. There have been many times in the past when analysts have suggested the end of work is near. Economists answer that because human wants are unlimited, scarce supplies of goods relative to the potential demand for them ensure employment opportunities.

To achieve a worthwhile future, labor will need to organize our emerging knowledge-based economy to ensure that the development of human potential is both our principal objective and our main source of employment. There have been many times in the past when analysts have suggested the end of work is near. Economists answer that because human wants are unlimited, scarce supplies of goods relative to the potential demand for them ensure employment opportunities.

Yet, without dipping too far into science fiction, we already see the outlines of new technologies that integrate the sensory functions, flexible movements and logical decision-making capacities that have made human beings indispensable in production.

Robots now not only roll on wheels, but they can walk, run and dance (albeit clumsily). Bioengineering has taken on the task of systematically decoding human and animal functions, such as the imitation of muscular systems, to improve machine dexterity. Visual sensors guide automated tasks such as precision welding. At Google and Microsoft, software is being fine-tuned to translate material from one language to another without human intervention.

Artificial intelligence does not need to be perfected to substantially reduce the demand for human employment in repetitive jobs. Much professional work is likewise vulnerable. For example, the complex knowledge of extremely skilled diamond cutters has been downloaded into decision-making programs and combined with flexible automated tools to reduce human error and increase productivity.

Work on robotically assisted surgery is being funded by defense agencies. Across the country, newspapers have used information-based technologies to reduce labor in typesetting and production. The paper on which this article was printed — assuming you are not reading it through an electronic medium that requires no delivery drivers — was handled robotically at the printing plant.

It is true that some technology increases the demand for new workers. In colleges and universities, where distance and programmed learning were originally designed to reduce the need for faculty, a whole new line of technicians is now employed to operate, manage and deploy these technologies.

Although technology has not succeeded in eliminating faculty, digital and video lectures that instruct many more students may yet undermine traditional faculty roles. At least for the near term, however, we will continue to need people to design, manage, market and repair these new technologies. These are our knowledge workers.

Even in a knowledge economy, knowledge workers, like industrial workers in the industrial era, do not constitute the majority of employment. At its peak in the 1950s, manufacturing provided employment for over 30 percent of our workers. Increased productivity and trade have reduced such work to 12 percent today. Employment has shifted to the service sector, only some of which is knowledge-related work.

The roughly 30 percent of the labor force with college degrees typically find themselves in highly remunerated jobs that encourage independence and responsibility. Unionization has made inroads into the well-paid knowledge-based sector by representing increasing numbers of nurses, teachers and engineering occupations.

With a few exceptions, in most other service employment the labor movement is struggling to ensure living wages and decent benefits. Unlike the knowledge sector, personal services such as childcare, home care, retailing, security and cleaning are typically low-wage, low-status jobs with little or no security.

The trend toward this type of employment is reminiscent of the upstairs/downstairs economy in which servants and care providers lived in the homes of the benefactors. Unfortunately, even these jobs are potentially threatened in the long run. We must hope that their continued survival in competition with automation stems from consumers' desire to maintain human interactions, and not merely because the wealthy desire to command servants of lesser status.

Employment changes have exacerbated inequality. In 2001, the entire bottom 40 percent of families received only 14 percent of the nation's income, while the top 5 percent took 21 percent. If we don't achieve a better distribution of income, much of our population may be perceived as an expendable burden. That perception can only become more pronounced over the next 40 years as our older-aged population doubles.

While capitalism's periodic propensity to produce economic crises — a failure to put enough income into the hands of those who would buy all the goods we can produce — could yet trigger major reforms, this by itself would not be enough. Labor must produce a better vision of its own for the future.

Organized labor's current membership crisis is complicated by job insecurity and changing career patterns. By the age of 36, typical workers have had 10 separate employers. Moreover, fewer than half of workers nearing retirement have 15 years of experience with their current employer. Rapid and continuous knowledge-based innovation undermines job stability. When basic industries cannot provide, workers think long and hard before undertaking the risks of unionization, which include employer firings and strikes.

Visionary labor leaders must enable lower-paid workers to achieve a better share of the nation's wealth by establishing flexible pathways of advancement — or job ladders — across employers. Job ladders provide an opening for conversation between labor, educators and business.

Yet, worker investments in skills and experience are likely to be abused unless agreements are formalized. Only unions can successfully enforce and monitor agreements across multiple employers to secure their workers' upward mobility.

Building-trade unions coordinate multi-employer apprenticeships that give workers the problem-solving skills and independence they need to thrive in the knowledge economy. In New York, the Service Employees International Union provides training that enables members to advance from low-paid home-care aide to professional nurse positions.

Yet, for those consigned to dead-end jobs, such as fast-food servers, no reliable pathways have been organized that facilitate advancement across industries.

Within our children's future, we can expect that technology will continue its successful assault upon labor costs. Still, as technology replaces professionals and personal-service providers, utopians will recognize in this the seeds of success, a time when working people can lay down their spades to live more-fulfilling lives. Yet, the typical worker's capacity to do so depends upon an income sufficient to permit participation in a life of creative activities.

Labor's challenge for the future consists of ensuring that human development is the primary industry of employment growth. As machines begin to look more like humans, workers must distinguish themselves through their capacity for human creativity, responsibility, autonomy and inquiry.

Often unnoticed in labor circles is the indirect competition it faces from the rise of a university system that is widely regarded as the guardian of economic opportunity in the U.S. Universities fuel the economy with trained labor, basic research and direct employment. They do so in a way that generally leaves their students in blissful ignorance of, or even hostile to, the legacy of labor and class conflict.

Armed with degrees and youthful optimism, it frequently takes graduates years before they realize that protections blue-collar workers achieved through struggle are not theirs. This is no accident: The fantastic rise of modern education has been, in part, motivated by the desire to insulate employers from worker control over the supply of skill.

Innovation creates wealth by discarding old ways and products in favor of more efficient and effective practices. Successful entrepreneurs who seize new opportunities enrich themselves and much of society, but capitalism does not require these winners to compensate the losers. As knowledge, human capital and innovation increase in importance, labor must find a way to tax successful innovation and repair the lives change has disrupted.

Rather than an industrial strategy, it is time to pursue a strategy in which labor partners with knowledge creators to make the university the center of industry and community. Knowledge work in the university is salaried, not driven by profits. The university creates an alternative space to ensure that investments in knowledge are not privatized to benefit only the few. Many will fear commercialization of academia, but the university has always sold its products and has not yet undermined its distinctive commitments to tradition, discipline and science.

A transformation of basic societal institutions such as this is not unprecedented. The family unit once dominated our economy in the way that industry does today, and in an earlier period, religion did much the same thing. Academia's integration into our economy and community is already substantial. Yet, clearly, higher education is not without its own problems.

Organized labor can add to the university by bargaining how students are prepared for work (and life), how workers are treated in their university jobs and, most importantly, how university knowledge contributes to the larger economy.

Together, labor and academia can strive for a world that encourages continuous human development through work and study spanning the seams of knowledge that separate the arts, professions and sciences. The vision of uniting labor with the knowledge sector seems more attractive, and likely more sustainable, than alternatives that rely upon labor's partnership in systems predicated exclusively upon greed or power.

Dan Jacoby holds the University of Washington's Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies for 2004-06. He teaches in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Knowledge and the Economy: Why labor must work with educators
Dan Jacoby

Distinctions between the world of work and those of science fiction are becoming steadily harder to define. Robots have evolved considerably beyond the welding machines first showcased in auto assembly plants. They now assist in a wide variety of production process from cookies to sneakers, with hosts of other activities such as remote controlled mining and surgical assistants in the design or development stage. As bioengineers succeed in reproducing or mimicking human and animal anatomy such as skin, eyesight or muscle systems, their innovations will be integrated into newer generations of robots, allowing them to perform work tasks more flexibly. This is especially so because these advances will be implemented in conjunction with information technologies designed to program ever more complex decision making processes.

Even now, in the current infancy of these technologies, we have witnessed a massive reduction in the share of employment we dedicate to producing goods as technology has reduced the costs of global trade and increased factory productivity. As work shifts to the service sector, employers necessarily focus their attempts to reduce costs in this new arena. The outsourcing of call centers and computer programmers abroad are simply the most recent manifestations of this trend. We can anticipate more profound changes as information technology becomes fully integrated with bioengineering and robotics.

Scientific advances like these should herald a new era of wealth, but instead have exacerbated wage differentials between educated and less-educated workers. The result is that schooling, as opposed to unionization, has come to be viewed as the policy lever best able to produce good work and labor conditions. Symptomatically, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes: “Here is the dirty little secret that no C.E.O wants to tell you: they are not just outsourcing to save on salary. They are doing it because they can often get better-skilled and more productive people than their American workers. … In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.”

Yet, education alone is unlikely continue to guarantee the future of American workers. Even if we assume that America can be coaxed into making the investments required, it is hard to envision how the current structure of the economy could accommodate a massive infusion of new knowledge workers. Knowledge workers plan, conceive, repair, analyze, bargain, engineer, invent, manage and consult. How much knowledge work does any economy need? The reality is that our economy’s turn to the service sector has created opportunities for some knowledge workers, but is also requires a substantial increase in the number of people providing personal services.

Unfortunately, future work will likely fall into the personal service domain. Unfortunately, as noted at the Harry Bridges Labor Center’s Spring Caring Labor conference, such work is frequently demeaned and underpaid. Nancy Folbre explained to attendees the need to find and adopt a high road strategy for improving both the quality of personal care services as well as the working conditions in which they are provided. Upgrading other services, like house cleaning, restaurant work, or retail clerking constitute an even bigger challenge.

In our post-industrial economy only college graduates – the bedrock of the knowledge industry— have succeeded in preserving their status and increasing their earnings. Over the last 35 years, the wages of those who stopped schooling at high school have been flat, at best. Incomes among college graduates, nonetheless, mask very substantial inequalities according to student degrees. For example, one major study showed that male engineering and pharmacy graduates earned 70 percent more than those in performing arts. Median incomes for students in technical fields are typically thirty percent greater than those for recent liberal arts graduates.

More concerning is the fact that the cost of seeking the good life through higher education is high. Tuition, board and fees at elite institutions approach forty thousand dollars per year. Meanwhile, as state aid falters, tuition inflation at public institutions has skyrocketed. Currently, thirty percent of the workforce possesses an undergraduate degree, meaning that a substantial expansion in this percentage of college graduates will necessitate considerable public funding.

Rapid enrollment expansion will increase the likelihood that baccalaureates may suffer the same decline affecting high school graduates. It was just 50 years ago that high school graduates were considered an educational elite. But as college has become more prevalent those degrees don’t count for very much anymore. There is some evidence that college graduates already understand this as one third of them have found it necessary or advantageous to procure post-baccalaureate degrees.

Enrollment patterns suggest a game of educational leapfrog in which advanced credentials become essential to distinguish individual job aspirants from the rest of the pack. However, what works for an individual may not be so productive for an entire economy. While education may be valued for its transformative capacity, we have few reliable measures to show how it raises worker productivity. Knowledge work usually occurs in teams producing services that are not standardized and therefore not readily measured.

Assuming that knowledge workers can maintain high earnings, their working conditions have nonetheless become a source of concern. There is an alarming trend toward longer hours as many professionals virtually eat and breath their jobs 24/7. In the absence of objective measures of performance, salaried work is often rewarded haphazardly. What unions called cronyism or favoritism, is often justified to employees as the reward for “team-players.” For older white-collar workers, especially, it is often difficult to make career changes once they have invested everything they have in a particular employer or career.

That is just where we stand today. Looking into the future, we can anticipate immense productivity improvements as the PC, the TV, and the phone are integrated. Not only will this reduce manufacturing employment, it will eliminate more jobs in entertainment and media. These changes are just beginning.

As scientists learn to decode genetic information it is being harnessed to redesign species that can do our work for us. Whether computer scientists and psychologists will ever achieve artificial intelligence is not important because intelligent systems using imitations of human senses are already expanding the capacity of automated systems to troubleshoot and analyze production problems.

Economists, and I am one, argue that human wants are insatiable, so that there is no limit to the work that can be done. That is pretty nearly true. Unfortunately, it is the distribution of income that applies the brakes to meaningful employment. As we move towards the future, labor will have to ensure that the income from the potential supply of goods and services is widely distributed. If income continues to be concentrated among the few firms that control our production and distribution networks, then the rest of us will be consigned to jobs that amount to waiting on the elite, hand and foot. As presently organized, labor has limited ability to organize this new network of personal service providers.

Because the possibilities are so fantastic, workers must set their course for the future with as full an understanding of technology’s potentials and pitfalls as possible. To assist in this task, the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies will make its theme this year “Knowledge, Labor and the Economy.”

Much of our concern about the future involves classic questions: Will there be enough work for everyone? Will workers be empowered or imprisoned by new technologies? Will the potential wealth from new technology be spread broadly or narrowly? But there are also new questions that require answers. In particular, we will want to how and whether technology can overcome the resource scarcities that have pitted one society against another. A second more ominous question is whether we need all the people we have?

The past can never be our only guide to the future, but already current trends provide strong hints of the huge changes in store. Virtually any technological change can be harnessed to promote prosperity or totalitarianism, and sometimes both. Ultimately, labor’s strategies must depend upon the visions we employ to guide us.

©2003 University of Washington
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Last updated: June 14, 2006.