factory jobs are not inherently “good jobs”

Actual killer robots. Source.

This story from Bloomberg on workplace accidents in Alabama’s booming auto plant sector is grim:

After several minutes, Elsea grabbed a tool—on the video it looks like a screwdriver—and entered the screened-off area around the robot to clear the fault herself. Whatever she did to Robot 23, it surged back to life, crushing Elsea against a steel dashboard frame and impaling her upper body with a pair of welding tips. A co-worker hit the line’s emergency shut-off. Elsea was trapped in the machine—hunched over, eyes open, conscious but speechless.

No one knew how to make the robot release her.

Workers with little to no training are coerced into working long shifts on machinery with known safety problems all to make barely more than minimum wage. Apart from the direct human misery, what’s most striking to me about these stories is how little impact they rate to have on our misguided national debate about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the need to bring factory jobs back on the presumption that such jobs are “good” (high-paying, safe, stable, full-time, benefit-providing, etc.) and are vehicles into a middle-class life. But the idea that “factory jobs are good, middle-class jobs” is only true in a world where workers and unions have the power to make them so. Factory jobs in the late 19th century were hellish. There’s nothing inherently good about jobs in any industry. Working for 10$/hour to get crushed by a robot because you are trying to make quota and no one trained you on how to shut the machine off when it malfunctions is back in that hellish direction.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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