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  • Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
  • – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Radical Road – Photo by Ulli Diemer

Auto worker says automation creates worker alienation

By Ulli Diemer

Martin Glaberman, an auto worker for 20 years, was trying to convey the essence of ‘automated’ production for his audience of 200 Tuesday evening.

“Try to imagine a job,” he said, “that takes 36 seconds to complete.” Imagine doing that same job, over and over, for eight hours a day, five or more days a week. Imagine doing that job for the rest of your life.”

“You cannot light a cigarette or get a drink of water without a car going by on the assembly line. How can one express the tensions that are inherent in such a situation – doing a job that takes 36 seconds for the rest of your life?”

Glaberman was speaking on “Marxian Views of the Working Class” at the Ontario College of Education, the first of a series of lectures on “The Working Class in Canada” sponsored by the Committee for a Marxist Institute – a Toronto group setting up a Marxist centre and offering courses.

Nothing – no fringe benefits, no increase in pay – can compensate for the alienation of such a life, Glaberman contended, dismissing the fashionable theory that the ‘working class is bought off’ and inherently conservative.

Citing instance after instance of sabotage, and spiraling rates of wildcat strikes, as well as increasing absenteeism and alcoholism in industry, he maintained the nature of work in capitalist society forces one to fight back.

He noted he was not pretending “workers are pure, unsullied, noble savages, inherently revolutionary.”

At the same time, however, he pointed out in many factories a virtual civil war exists between workers and management, even if workers don’t necessarily draw all the conclusions from their struggles. It is only struggle itself, he said that creates an awareness of collective strength.

He warned against looking at people’s consciousness in a static way by ignoring the reactionary or progressive elements of their thinking. Both exist in almost everyone, he said.

He cited the example of the U.S. auto industry in 1943. A proposal that workers not go on strike for the duration of the war was put to the membership with the full endorsement of the union leadership.

In a secret ballot a referendum, the proposal passed by a two-thirds majority. “it was,” said Glaberman, “a clear indication of what those workers thought.”

“There was only one problem,” he continued. “Before, during and after the vote, the majority of all auto workers went out in wildcat strikes. Now just what was their real consciousness?”

He suggested a worker, reading about war casualties in the paper, might readily mark his ballot in favour of the ‘no strike’ pledge.

But then back at work, his intellectual resolve might easily melt in the face of the actions of foremen and management who had given up neither profits nor harassment for the duration of the war.

Glaberman also warned against accepting statistics about the increase in government and other ‘white-collar’ employees too uncritically. The trends while they existed, were being exaggerated, he said.

For example, he said, many government and service jobs are actually blue collar. He cited the example of janitors, bus drivers, postal workers and chambermaids.

Another trend, he argued, was to increasing ‘proletarianization’ of white collar professions, many of which are becoming increasingly regimented and impersonal. Many large offices, he said are becoming more and more like factories.

But he also noted this process could be overstressed, at least in some sectors. He took the example of a professor. (Glaberman is himself now a university teacher).

While the university is more like a factory than it used to be, he said, important differences still remain.

“If a professor had to type the same paragraph over and over again, from nine to five, if he had to ask a supervisor permission to go to the washroom, if the typewriter carriage moved at a certain speed and he could lose his job if he couldn’t keep up the pace, and if he came to the realization that he had to do this dead end job for the rest of his life, then he’d be a factory worker.”

He said he excluded groups like social workers and teachers “who manipulate people instead of things” from the working class as he defined it.

But he rejected the idea that only the struggles of the working class were “valid.” The activities of teachers, black, women’s, and student groups are important in bringing about a revolution, he said, regardless of whether they can be defined as “working class.”

Published in The Varsity, September 18, 1974

The text of Martin Glaberman's September 17, 1974 lecture, Marxist Views of the Working Class is available online.


Ulli Diemer: Preface to Martin Glaberman’s Four Essays on the Working Class
Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber: Back To The Future: The Continuing Relevance of Marx
Martin Glaberman: A Different Sort of Democracy
Martin Glaberman: Revolutionary Optimist: An interview with Martin Glaberman
Martin Glaberman: “Workers have to deal with their own reality and that transforms them”
Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber: Working For Wages: The Roots of Insurgency
Marxists’ Internet Archive Martin Glaberman Index

Keywords: AutomationAutoworkersFactory AutomationIndustrial Working ClassMarxismWorkWork StressWorkersWorking ClassWorkplace Stress