Cape Town - We are in the midst of a second industrial revolution, says Terry Bell in his latest Labour Wrap. And it is a revolution that the trade unions have been slow to recognise and react to.
He raises the issue because of comments made by reader David Fienberg, who pointed out that trade unions needed to adapt to the changed circumstances of today. Bell agrees, but notes that while the nature of employment has changed dramatically, the underlying conflict of interest between buyers and sellers of labour remains the same.
For this reason, he feels that unions, often the largest of organised groups in society, should become more proactive. However, they should also represent the interests — and be the voices — of the majority of people who survive on the basis of income from work. This means remaining independent of various sectional interest groups and especially of employers, whether state or private.
As the latest example of the second industrial revolution, Bell points to 3D printing where any variety of products can be produced — printed —by a single individual, so making redundant any number of jobs. Workers employed to manufacture and service these machines would hardly make up for the jobs lost.
The same he notes, happened in the newspaper industry some 50 years ago when a single journalist was able, on a computer terminal, to do jobs that had previously been handled by five or six people.
However, he also notes out that unions have usually been to the forefront in pointing out looming problems, whether in the Post Office, Eskom or in the management of traffic and roads. Their warnings have gone unheeded, but perhaps, says Bell, they should be more active in identifying and pursuing remedies rather than stopping at mere rhetoric.
* Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.