UPS and Labor Dependency

Many companies announce a new automated system and then tack onto their announcement something like, “This new system will increase productivity, add jobs, and give our workers safer, more creative working conditions.” Often, nobody believes them.

UPS is working on full automation at some of their facilities. They’re not being mealy-mouthed about it, either. They said their new system will “significantly reduce our dependency on labor.”

They didn’t start out that way. Last November, they touted  “smart automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence that boosts the unbeatable service that UPS is known for, linked to the heart and dedication of our people,” inviting visitors to “Watch a robotic ballet paired with human care and attention to detail.”

Now they’re cutting 12,000 jobs. While news outlets are mentioning that the cuts follow union demands for higher pay, the cuts are expected to save UPS a billion dollars. However, the cut is just 3% of the workforce, and the company says the jobs to be lost will not be union jobs. They did acknowledge that the pay raise, which is expected to bring the income of full-time UPS drivers to $170,000 per year, was a factor in their decision to change their systems.

Depending on labor

This is not a new idea for UPS. They’ve already trimmed their workforce by about 10% — 43,000 jobs — in the past three years, primarily by shifting to automated facilities.  Traditionally, packages were unloaded, sorted, tracked, moved, and then loaded again n a process that involved 10 people. Now, the packages are unloaded by one person, sent through an automated system, and loaded up by another person. That’s two people instead of ten.

The World Socialist Web Site says that “The aim is not only to cut costs at each individual corporation but to smash the rising resistance of the working class through mass unemployment.”

But automation has been the obvious solution to the labor problem for some years. What’s the problem with labor? Shortages of workers, with the law of supply and demand allowing the remaining workers to demand higher wages. They can do this until they price themselves out of a job by making automation seem more appealing than pressing on with human workers.

When human workers were relatively inexpensive, either locally or offshore, the extra up-front cost of developing automated systems didn’t seem worthwhile. Now, as human workers become scarcer and pricier, robots seem to be worth the effort and investment.

UPS is being honest about it. Will other companies follow their lead?