Trends at work - past and present

Before industrialization began in the 18th and 19th centuries, work was limited to the agricultural sector with some small-scale craftwork in the home. The craftsman controlled the production process and made a complete product using manual skills and hand tools. In industrial societies however, fatory-based work introduced a division of labour, which saw the breaking down of work into specialized tasks to be carried out by one or more workers, e.g. assembly-line production. Most factory jobs have been reduced to a few simple tasks, i.e. they have been deskilled. Because the tasks required of each worker are so routine, the work is often repetitive and unsatisfying. For employers, assembly-line production is cheap and efficient because workers can be trained - and replaced - quickly.

Automation is the replacement of human labour by machines in manufacturing processes. Since the 1970s, computers have increasingly controlled all aspects of production. Robots - computer-driven machines - can now be programmed to do work which was either boring or labour-intensive or even dangerous. In computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), computers run assembly lines, programme robots and aid in designing new products. One result of automation is an increased flexibility in production processes. Unlike earlier generations of machinery, computer-driven tools can be quickly reprogrammed and assembly processes changed to alter products. This flexibility permits rapid shifts to new products, changes in design and, in general, shorter delivery times. The computers used in clothing factories, for example, can record and analyse sales in thousands of outlets around the world, enabling them to anticipate and meet customers' needs: teenagers in Southern California may favour different styles from their counterparts in New York City or Tokyo. Orders can then be placed quickly with the factories located in dozens of countries around the world (globalization of work).

Since automation has reduced the number of workers required to do particular jobs, down sizing (also rigbt-sizing or re-engineering) has become the new buzzword. The new technologies may create jobs in the long run, but at the moment large numbers of unskilled and semiskilled workers are being displaced by machines and the handful of highly- qualified technicians that run them. Indeed, one of the main objectives of automation is to produce more goods at a low cost. These factors may explain the seeming paradox of declining wages and high unemployment, in the face of economic growth and increasing business productivity.

Another group which has been affected by these trends are the trade unions. The unions are workers' organizations which are concerned with improving various aspects of their members' working lives. Union members often feel that, although as individuals they will have relatively little power, by uniting together they can influence employers.

In the US, unions have generally been concerned with pay and benefits, job security, working hours, and on-the-job health and safety conditions. In Europe, unions have also called for greater worker control over work processes, as well as for a share in profits. One function of unions is to obtain legislation favourable to workers. Another function is collective bargaining, i.e. negotiating with employers on behalf of its members. Any agreements are then legally binding for both parties. Unfortunately, factors such as the globalization of the labour market (globalization of work) have led to job losses and declining wages in recent years, and union membersbip has suffered as a result. In the global economy, for example, a steel plant in Pennsylvania or a car factory in Michigan can close down, fire its unionized workers, and reopen in a low-income country where wages are a tenth of those in the US and unions are outlawed.