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Douglas Fraser

WHAT will the 21st century look like to the working man and woman? After decades of watching the world from a blue-collar perspective, Douglas Fraser puts ``a top priority'' on international relations and global peace. Those issues, he says, will be ``absolutely critical'' to the 21st century -- because ``the consequences of not doing something'' could be ``horrible ... beyond imagination.'' High on his agenda, too, is the need for reform in the American political system and in the way nations manage debt.

But, in an hour-long conversation at the Detroit Metro airport during a break in his still busy traveling schedule, the retired president of the United Automobile Workers focused primarily on issues that center on the shop floor. There, in particular, he sees some significant adjustments arising for the 21st century.

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He predicts a future of increased career-changing, shortened work hours, and lengthened retirement years. Despite the availability of home computers, he thinks employees will still want to go to work in central locations -- largely for the sake of the camaraderie. They may even get there in electric cars.

But above all, he sees steady technological advances in such areas as computer electronics and robotics -- advances that will alter both the work itself and the social and political structure of the work force.

For Mr. Fraser, that's just as it should be. He is concerned about the so-called ``technological unemployment'' that arises when machines replace workers. But he remains convinced that new technologies bring tremendous benefits -- if the world deals properly with their effects on humanity.

``It's not economically sound to resist or even slow down the introduction of new technology,'' he says, building his argument with full awareness of the controversy that sometimes bubbles up at the factory gates when workers feel threatened by robots.

``New technology does not necessarily mean unemployment or loss of jobs,'' he insists. ``If you [have] the introduction of new technology and [an] expansion in the economy at the same time, you won't have any unemployment.''

To dramatize his point, he cites figures from a business he knows inside out: the American automotive industry.

``In 1957,'' he says, ``we produced 7.5 million cars and trucks domestically.'' By 1977, he says, that number had risen 66 percent, to 12.5 million. But the work force had only increased by 13 percent -- because, during that same 20-year period, the industry experienced ``the introduction of automation in the stamping plants and the machining plants and the foundries,'' he says.

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For Fraser, it's a comforting example, proving that jobs can grow despite automation. Which, he says, is a good thing, because ``even if you're so inclined,'' you can't stop the influx of new technology.

Why not? Drawing again from the auto industry, he cites two reasons. The first has to do with global competition: ``Japan is not going to stop and Germany is not going to stop'' introducing new technology, he says.

The second, he adds, has to with ``something that is not commonly recognized in many cases,'' which is that ``new technology means improved quality, because you eliminate the human error. And obviously we're in a quality contest ... with the Japanese and other [carmakers] throughout the world.''

As this new technology continues to shape the next century's assembly lines, however, it will also bring significant changes to the lives of the workers.

``We're going to go to shorter work time,'' he says, ``just as sure as we sit here.''

Will a shortening of the work hours produce a four-day workweek in the early years of the 21st century?

``No, I don't think it will happen that quickly,'' he responds, although he notes that ``Germany is now down to 38 hours [in a workweek].'' For economic reasons, he says, the change will be gradual, because ``if you go from five-day to four-day [weeks], you're increasing the costs by more than 20 percent.''

``You just can't absorb that kind of economic shock in one fell swoop,'' he says.

Much more immediate, according to Fraser, will be changes in the relation of work years to retirement years. He looks to the complete elimination of a mandatory retirement age, producing a workplace in which ``there will be absolutely no [upper] age restraints at all.''

In fact, however, he sees little effect from that change -- largely because he expects increasing numbers of employees to retire well before age 65. Again, he draws his example from the carmakers, where workers can retire after 30 years. Retirement at 48? `THEORETICALLY,'' he notes, referring to employees who go to work at age 18, ``[retirement age] can be 48.'' For years, he said, the union resisted that idea, on the grounds that 48 was ``almost the prime of life.'' Gradually, however, that resistance has diminished. ``Who am I to say that 48 is not the right age for a person's worth [after] 30 years in the shop,'' he says, adding that ``30 years in the shop, assembling cars, is not a very thrilling life.''

Part of the reason it's not very thrilling, he concedes, is because there are ``a lot of lousy jobs'' in the auto industry -- wet sanding, torch soldering, and so forth. Automation, he says, can eliminate some of those jobs -- like soldering, which because of the danger of lead poisoning is no longer part of American carmaking. Fraser also sees a shift away from the mind-dulling routines of assembly-line work and toward a process of manufacturing in ``modules'' -- where teams of workers, each doing a sequence of different jobs, build a substantial part of each car.

As the work time shrinks, Fraser expects a corresponding increase in leisure time -- and an increase in the level of debate about what to do with it. He sees nothing surprising in these developments. ``That's history: Work a 12-hour day, and then a 10-hour day, and then finally an 8-hour day,'' he says.

Nor is there anything surprising in the debate about the value of leisure time. For centuries, he notes, industrialists have warned that ``a shorter work time would really be dangerous, because the workers would have too much idle time on their hands, and idleness results in mischief.''

Today, however, Fraser sees not mischief but a steady return to education, both among the retired and among those still working.

``I don't know how many of our retirees are going to community colleges, picking up new skills,'' he says. ``I've got a couple in my class,'' he adds, referring to the course he teaches at Wayne State University. ``It's wonderful.'' He sees a need in the future to make education more available to workers and retirees.

All of which assumes, of course, that America's future will continue to be full of manufacturing jobs. Fraser concedes that there will be ``an erosion of jobs in heavy industry.'' That has already happened. Yet he is encouraged by ``the rate at which this country has generated jobs,'' describing it as ``absolutely incredible'' compared with other countries.

The problem lies in the nature of the jobs created. The real growth in the United States, Fraser notes, has come in service-sector jobs -- which typically pay less, and sometimes much less, than manufacturing jobs. He cites recent studies done in Youngstown, Ohio, where steelworkers laid off when they were earning $12 an hour could only find service-sector jobs -- in fast-food restaurants, for example -- at $5 an hour. Less purchasing power `SO you dramatically decrease your purchasing power,'' he says, ``and therefore the standard of living.'' If that happens to too many Americans, he says, the result will be felt throughout the economy. ``Who's going to buy the services if all of these great middle-class jobs disappear?''

One answer, of course, is that the buyers will be the workers in the overseas nations that pick up the heavy-industry jobs America loses. In particular, Fraser cites South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brazil, and especially China as the newly emerging manufacturing powers of the 21st century. He says those countries will become increasingly important markets for American goods and services -- as long as Americans continue to exhibit their ``talent and genius'' for developing new products and new markets.

What about Japan? Will its industrial might compel the 21st-century American work force to conform to Japanese patterns of single-mindedness and determined obedience?

No, says Fraser, who has toured factories in Japan. ``We're too individualistic.'' Instead, he says, ``I would predict [that] the Japanese will conform to the Western culture.'' Why? Because ``there's something insidious -- thank goodness -- about freedom and liberty and democracy.''

And that brings Fraser to some of his deepest concerns about the 21st century: the inability of the American political process to provide sound government.

``If our Founding Fathers looked at us now ... and [saw] our inability to manage the debt,'' he says, they might think that ``we should have [gone] to the parliamentary system. Maybe we imposed so many checks and balances in the system [that] we immobilized ourselves.'' The level of debt FRASER is particularly concerned about the level of debt -- personal, national, and international. ``I've been talking about it for years,'' he says, ``but I don't blame people for not listening, because we were predicting a catastrophic event -- by now, by 1986.''

That collapse, he notes, has not come. ``But as sure as night follows day, we've got to pay the piper. It's just a question of when we pay the piper. And the longer we wait, the more difficult it's going to be.''

One way he can see the debt being better managed is by cuts in defense spending. ``I'm not a unilateral disarmament person,'' says Fraser, who served on the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament during the Carter administration. ``I believe we live in a dangerous and treacherous world and we have to be strong,'' he adds. He is convinced, however, that such strength can be maintained with lower levels of defense spending.

But the heart of the problem, for Fraser, lies in what he calls ``a lack of will and political courage'' in Congress and the White House. Instead of facing up to tough issues, he says, elected officials ``run for cover.''

``I don't think my memory's faulty,'' he adds. ``I just think they had more courage in the past.''

Fraser charges the problem to a weakening of the political parties, which is ``bad for democracy.''

``It's hard to get a cohesive program or policy unless you have a strong party,'' he says. ``I don't know quite what we do about it. Maybe repeal all the PACs [political-action committees] and ... have public finance through the political parties -- something to give the parties strength.''

``Otherwise,'' he says, ``you're just going to have 435 individuals in the House and 100 in the Senate -- no cohesion, no policy, no program.''

``I was on a couple of reform commissions,'' he recalls. ``We tried to strengthen the parties. But it's television that's doing us in.'' Through TV ``you can personalize politics. So now [candidates are] not dependent upon political parties. They ignore their political parties. They don't have to pay any attention to the platform adopted by the convention, which should be the manifesto.''

What can be done about TV's influence on campaigns? ``I'd abolish 30-second [political] commercials,'' Fraser says. ``I would make the candidates come on themselves,'' he explains, as in Britain, where ``everybody gets equal time in television'' without paying for it.

Next: Lloyd Richards, theater director, Nov. 4.