“We used to laugh at the robots,” Rickey’s buddy said. “When they first came in, they were so slow. We would sorta hurry and outproduce them. But one of the lines was about 18 people, and now they can run it with, like, five.”
Rickey and his friend were echoing, almost word for word, two other men with whom I’d shared one-dollar beers in the Agenda Sports Bar, not far from the Toledo Assembly Complex. Both 30-year men who’d started at the Cove, they now worked at the complex. Both referred to management and agreed that “they want us out of there.” One said, “If they could replace us with robots, they would. They doin’ it faster and faster. You ain’t gonna fool me! … They gonna replace us as fast as they can.” Both also agreed that, despite the recommendation of UAW Local 12, “lots of people in our plant voted for Trump.”
“Look, man,” Rickey’s friend said. “I’m a dumb guy. I am! I had a learning disability when I was in school. But I could do factory work. Factory work is what we did. Now robots do that job. What happens to people like me? People in the plant thinkin’ somebody’s gonna save ’em, like Trump. There ain’t nobody gonna save ’em.”
Rickey looked at me and said he tells his own children that if they wind up working in the plant, “then I failed as a father.”
Every person I talked to in the Toledo region said technology was as unstoppable as the sunrise. The inevitability of it, and the uncertainty about what it would mean, weighed on them like lead blankets. Of the two men in the Agenda, one’s grandfather and father had worked for Jeep. The other’s father did. But legacy didn’t mean anything anymore. You couldn’t count on much for very long.
Kaptur listens to the people in her district and hears the same thing between the lines. “People feel very much alone,” she says. “Vulnerable.” Her voters have lived through globalized trade, outsourcing, recession, and the coming of robots. Soon it’ll be AI. Meanwhile, defined pension plans are gone in favor of 401(k)s. More companies, like Fiat Chrysler, use more temp workers. New workers sign on to lower wage tiers. A working draft of the World Bank’s World Development Report advised governments that “rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets”—a fancy way of saying labor is disposable.
The effects are felt far beyond the jobs themselves. “Tribes of affection matter,” Kaptur says. “Whether it’s work-related, or a vets’ organization, or church, neighborhood, neighborhood businesses—they’re all evaporating. It’s the disappearance of everything they’ve worked for. Their identity, really.”
This is what Silicon Valley promoters of salves like universal basic income fail to understand. The engineers and programmers of the new machines seem to think they can buy off the displaced with a promise of cash. But many people don’t work for money, not really. They need the money, and they want the money, but money alone isn’t why anybody worked 40 years in the Cove. They stood on the line and welded or painted or bolted because they were auto workers in a country in which what you do is who you are, just as Shrewsbery is the Robot Doctor. They could look at a Wrangler, or a glass windshield, or a Whirlpool washer, and say “I made that.”
Probably nobody voted for Trump just because of technology. But when people feel powerless, they’ll gravitate toward any object, person, or belief they think might return some autonomy to them, or help them preserve what they fear they’re losing. [Continue reading…]