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Are Jobs on Their Way to Becoming Obsolete? And Is That a Good Thing?

Do we have it backward when we call for job creation? Could we instead radically rethink our economy to benefit everyone?

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We're dealing with a global economy, not just America. Our economic crisis is and continues to be global—the stock market in New York is dipping and tossing because of Greece's debt crisis. And we still need plenty of “stuff” to be able to make things digitally—and much of that stuff is made overseas by horribly exploited workers. Consider this glimpse inside the factory where iPhones, among other bits of fancy technology, are manufactured:

”Talking and stretching are forbidden on the assembly line, and clocking in five minutes late may result in the loss of half a day’s wages. Bathroom use is limited to 10 minutes, which is strictly enforced by an electronic key card.

Hong Kong’s SACOM recently discovered that workers have been forced to write public “confession letters,” a punishment reminiscent of Maoist China. Mistakes on the assembly line, or even a general accusation of inefficiency, are enough to merit a confession letter.

Most work involves standing and performing small, repetitive motions. Overtime means 12 hours of almost continuous standing.”

Foxconn Technology, the company that owns the factory, wants to replace human workers with one million robots. And one can scarcely argue, looking at the conditions, that humans ought to be doing this work. And these are the very jobs that our pro-globalization pundits, safe in their posh New York or Washington, DC offices, argue are bringing “development” around the world.

In his excellent work of labor history, Live Working or Die Fighting, the BBC's Paul Mason draws parallels between workers of the developing world and the labor battles workers fought in years past in industrialized countries from the US to Germany to China. He also points out that workers often embraced the ultimately alienating assembly-line technologies because they allowed for shorter work days—and tells the story of the struggle for those shorter work days by a vibrant, active labor movement.

Who is left in the US, with labor under ever-increasing attacks, to fight for the fairer future Rushkoff imagines? And who is going to bring that glorious future to the rest of the world? Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union points out that workers now are largely unorganized and lack representation both on the job and as a political force.

It's worth remembering, though, that before the radicals were purged from the US labor movement, unions were not just fighting for the right to bargain with their bosses for better wages, safer conditions, sick pay. So many of their fights were for the shorter workday and work week. When pundits argue that unions should concentrate on fighting for higher wages, they ignore entirely the long battles that brought us the weekend and the eight-hour day. They ignore the calls for bread, and for roses too.

And when Rushkoff points out that having a “job” (in the sense of working for a boss) perhaps should not be the ultimate goal, I hear echoes of the organizers whose factory occupations led to worker-owned factories instead, where all shared in the work and in the rewards. And Horowitz notes that throughout history there have been a range of different types of unions and organizations to help workers come together to solve problems—and even now, new types of intermediary organizations, unions, co-ops and more, are on the rise as people lean on each other to get through rough times.

Perhaps the biggest problem in Rushkoff's piece is that he seems to assume that the real work of production will continue to be done far away, out of mind. It's all too easy to picture a world where the wealthy play at creative work while a peasant class labors in factories and on farms.