Automation: Progress for Whom?

Clint Burelson

June 3, 2019

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(This article first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine) 

The Postal Service’s use of automation has taken away Clerk Craft work, made remaining work harder, and reduced the power of workers at the Post Office. In the near future, management plans to increase machine use to sort parcels. Therefore, automation is something we need to seriously think about. An important first question is, who benefits?

Just like any tool, the use of machines can be good or bad. Automation can be a good thing if it is used to free workers from difficult work and provide us the time to enjoy life.

However, in the early seventies, the very wealthy aggressively reorganized themselves through their corporations, associations, think tanks, media outlets, and the buying of politicians to attack workers’ organizing efforts and keep most of the benefits, productivity, profit, and power associated with automation for themselves. Employers saw no reason to pass on profits from productivity to their workers.

Impact of Automation on the Clerk Craft

The owners of the biggest corporations in the U.S. pushed automation at the Post Office in order to replace and reduce the power of the skilled postal workers who bravely went on strike against the U.S. government in March 1970.

President Richard Nixon sent in the National Guard, but because they did not have the scheme knowledge necessary to sort the mail, the strike was successful in substantially raising wages for postal workers. In the aftermath of the strike, big business then pushed automation to take away the power of postal workers.

Automation is one of the biggest reasons for the reduction in Clerk Craft employees and has made the Post Office a difficult and sometimes more dangerous place to work. Let us compare a career of 30 years that involves manual sorting of letters with a career on the Delivery Bar Code Sorter (DBCS):

A Career in Manual Sortation – Clerks clustered together sit on rest bars and sort mail manually into pigeon holes while discussing current events, management, and anything else they want. The close interactions between workers promotes understanding and solidarity regardless of race, gender, and culture. Workers lift a heavy tray of mail every 15 minutes or so.

A Career on the DBCS – Two workers (sometimes 1) lift heavy trays of mail on a constant basis that includes unhealthy twisting and bending and reaching over their shoulders. The machine is loud, making it difficult to talk, and makes harping noises to push the workers to work faster in order to stop the screeching. Postal workers serve the machine instead of the machine serving postal workers.

In a just society, the increase in productivity from manual to the DBCS would result in higher wages, reduced hours, and at least three people on a machine with plenty of rotation elsewhere to reduce wear and tear on the mind and body. In an unjust society, only the top one percent benefit.

Progress is Possible

Progress with automation is possible for workers. Organized workers in some European countries benefit from more fair labor laws and have more democratic elections. Together they won and still enjoy shorter hours and generous leave benefits associated with automation and other corporate productivity gains.

The one percent and their enablers in this country want us to be quiet at the kid’s table, with low expectations and for us to believe that it is inevitable that employers keep the profits from automation. That is why we don’t hear about the benefits that organized workers in other countries have earned.

As workers in a union, we are in the best position to lead the fight to benefit from automation and increased productivity. Believing that we deserve the benefits of automation and taking the responsibility to address it is an important first step to develop strategies to achieve progress. It is time to raise our expectations and to organize.

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