Technological Change and Unionization in the Service Sector

By Costello, Cynthia B. | Monthly Labor Review, August 1987 | Go to article overview

Technological Change and Unionization in the Service Sector


Costello, Cynthia B., Monthly Labor Review


Technological change and unionization in the service sector

The shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on services presents organized labor with major challenges. What the labor movement confronts is dwindling power in the manufacturing industries where it once exercised extensive control and relatively little presence in service industries, which are fast becoming the dominant industries in the American economy. In order to regain the position it once held in American society, the labor movement must assess the effects of technological change on service sector workers are develop new strategies for unionization.

How are new technologies transforming work in the service industries and what do these changes suggest for organizing service sector workers? In the clerical occupations, the evidence regarding the loss of jobs due to automation is contradictory. On the one hand, a well-publicized study conducted by Wassily Leontief and Faye Duchin predicted that clerical employment would decline from 17.8 percent of the labor force in 1978 to 13.5 percent of the labor force in 1990.1 On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that in the most plausible worst-case scenario, clerical employment would lose 2 percentage points of its share of total employment by 1995.2 What both the more pessimistic and the more optimistic researchers share is an assessment that we can expect slower growth in the clerical occupations over the next decade, in part due to the continued introduction of laborsaving technologies.

The evidence is also contradictory on the effects of technological change on the quality of clerical jobs. As has been the case in other sectors, office automation leads to the deskilling of old jobs and the creation of new skilled jobs. By now, the history of the deskilling of the secretarial occupation is familiar. The job of the traditional secretary combined the multiple tasks of coordinating, typing, transcribing, and filing. By contrast, the job of a person working at a word processor in a large insurance company or bank today frequently involves the continuous repetition of one task. Many persons working at word processing machines repeatedly enter precoded information onto form letters, which are stored on the word processor.3

At the same time, however, the introduction of automated technologies into industries with large numbers of clerical jobs has brought with it the creation of new skilled occupations. In the insurance industry, for example, the introduction of computers has allowed some clerical workers to take on the tasks previously performed by professional insurance adjusters. Nevertheless, I would argue that in the absence of unionization, the long-term consequence of technological change on the quality of clerical jobs is likely to be negative.

What about the effects of technological change on other workers in the service industries, such as food service workers, janitors, and hospital aides? In many service sector jobs, technological change appears to play a less significant role than it has with clerical jobs. For example, technological innovation has done little to change the demand for or the work process of cleaning service workers. The work still requires the intensive labor of workers, which cannot be readily replaced by machines. Another important difference between clerical jobs and other jobs in the service sector is that many service sector jobs cannot be exported.

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