Bargaining over New Technology: Possible Effects of Removing Legal Constraints

By Finzel, Bart D.; Abraham, Steven E. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Bargaining over New Technology: Possible Effects of Removing Legal Constraints


Finzel, Bart D., Abraham, Steven E., Journal of Economic Issues


In viewing the potential impact of recent technological change upon the economy and the labor market, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) recently concluded that "the United States - indeed every industrialized nation - is undergoing a scientific, technological, economic revolution every bit as significant as the industrial revolution itself" [quoted in Bamber and Lansbury 1989, 41]. Similarly, the widespread application of microelectronics led Harley Shaiken [1984] to claim that we are moving from the "first generation" of automated equipment to the "second generation." The first generation entailed auto-marion of single work processes, allowing workers to perform individual tasks at a faster rate. The second generation ties separate work processes into integrated systems, creating entirely new work processes.

The effects this new technology will have on workplace organization and employment patterns have been hotly debated. Some authors have suggested that microelectronics may facilitate the individual's control of work by decentralizing production, eliminating boring and dangerous jobs, enhancing skills, and increasing leisure time.(1) For example, Isaac Asimov once wrote that it "will leave to human beings the tasks that are intrinsically human, such as sports, entertainment, and scientific research [quoted in Friedrich 1980, 83]. Others have insisted on differentiating between the potential of microelectronics and the reality of its use. In this view, integrated production systems transfer control of the work process from the shopfloor to upper management and, in the process, deskill occupations. Workers become mere monitors of a production process in which they are not directly involved.(2) These commentators believe microelectronics will gradually transform the traditionally pyramidal skill structure of the labor force into one that has two tiers-without the skilled labor and middle management occupations that typically are the bridge occupations into the middle class. Barbara Garson quotes an office manager who succinctly describes this phenomenon: "We are moving from the pyramid shape to the Mac West. The employment chart of the future will still show those swellings on the top and we'll never completely get rid of those big bulges of clerks on the bottom" [quoted in Gregory 1982, 89].

Much of this debate is highly speculative. The arguments advanced are dependent on the assumptions made about the impact the technology will have upon its implementation. These assumptions generally presuppose the work organization that will follow the technological change. Firms are viewed as operating in a competitive environment where they are under a "technological imperative" [Heller 1989] in which a single, optimum method to organize employment surrounding new technology is assumed to exist. This view implies that once a particular method of use of a technology is optimal, market forces will drive all of its users to this solution. As a consequence, over time the technology will be used in a similar manner by all firms; and all firms employing a particular technology should have similar employment, productivity, and other outcomes. In other words, the technology has an impact on work organization that is assumed to be inevitable and unalterable. Its effects, good or bad, are to be tolerated and adjusted to.

There is, however, increasing evidence to support the notion that comparable technologies have different impacts on employment, skill levels, and job design in different settings [see Finzel 1989; Osterman 1989; Kennedy et al. 1982; Noble 1979; "America's Choice . . ." 1990]. Some firms, for example, have increased outsourcing and use contingent workers, thereby reducing the need for full-time production workers, and have used microelectronic-based technology to fragment the work process into easily managed, repetitive tasks.(3) This technology use might be named "low-wage technology.

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