Michael Anthony Keane
Undercurrents Of The Changes To Work That Automation Brings
by Michael Anthony Keane
University of Twente
Presently there is a gap in the research regarding how the individual building trade union member experiences his or her work with computerized technologies having devalued the required human skills of that work. Computerized and automated technologies have devalued human labor, resulting in workers having different experiences with work. This research relates this devaluing of human labor and the worker having different experiences to the work of a building trades union and how the members of such a union are resistant to or ready for organizational change necessarily required for survival due to the structural model of such a union; the building trades union, in this case the sheet metal workers, has a business model where commoditized labor is their “product.”
A qualitative method of documentary analysis as well as a quantitative method using an online survey with Likert scale options, including an option to respond individually, was offered to a nationwide selection of members of the sheet metal division of the International Association of Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers union.
The quantitative results, obtained using latent class analysis of the survey responses, showed that while there was a sizeable minority of members resistant to change, the majority of rank-and-file sheet metal workers were ready to embrace the changes that computerized technology and its subsequent training requirements would have upon their work. The qualitative results show that work has become abstracted, skills have become obsolete or have been deskilled, and skill sets of computerized technology usage are required of the worker. New work in the building trades has workers having to interact with a virtual edifice and, specifically for the sheet metal worker, with virtual duct work delivery systems, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment and other trade related entities.
Sheet metal workers need to learn to operate different forms of computer interface tools to manipulate these virtual models. Additionally, conversely to other studies where skills devaluation or skills obsolescence has led to declining wages the members of the sheet metal workers’ union have actually risen. Finally, with new computerized and automated work for the sheet metal worker there is cause to re-imagine and reconsider the collective bargain agreement (CBA), the union contract, as the CBA relates to work from an industrial economy rather than an information economy which this new work is part of.