“Though its history is brief, automation already has its own folklore”
(Time magazine, March 1956)
The term “automation” is thought to derive from Delmar S. Harder, a plant manager for General Motors, as Science Clarified’s website explains;
“In 1946, Delmar S. Harder devised one of the earliest such systems to automate the manufacture of car engines at the Ford Motor Company. The system involved an element of thinking: the machines regulated themselves, without human supervision, to produce the desired results. Harder’s assembly-line automation produced one car engine every 14 minutes, compared with the 21 hours if had previously taken human workers.”
Automation also took on a wider meaning too, covering, according to Robert Macmillan in his study of Automation from 1956; “any process in which the lower functions of a human operator – both physical and mental – are taken over by self acting devices”.
As far as Macmillan and General Motors were concerned, this was progress. Macmillan quotes Walter Reuther, then President of the CIO (The Congress for Industrial Organisations) who saw many positives of the dawning of this new automated age;
“Economic abundance is now within our grasp if we but have the good sense to use our resources and technology, fully and effectively, within a framework of economic policies that are morally right and socially responsible”.
With even the head of one of the major trade unions was giving his support (albeit with caveats) to automation, dissenting voices seemed scarce. Time magazine of March 1956 – in an article headlined Robot Machines Are Cutting Costs, Boosting Profits and Making Jobs, Bringing More Leisure To Everyone” – quotes M.I.T professor Norbert Wiener, who in 1950 stated that automation would reduce manual workers to “slave labor” and cause an economic crash that would make “the Depression of the ‘30’s seem like a pleasant joke”. By 1956 Time quotes Wiener saying that automation was now “increasing man’s leisure” and “enriching his spiritual life”.
A decade later a report into the effects of automation by Steven Deutsch found that “some formerly optimistic notes have become muted with pessimism and concern…although the evidence seems to deny that automation is the single major factor underlying unemployment, technological changes have induced structural unemployment in industries such as coal mining, steel and railroads”.
The study found that while only 8% of respondents stated that they believed their jobs were threatened by automation, 51% believed that a consequence of automation would be unemployment and a similar number also believed that unemployment was a price worth paying for the benefits of automation (supposedly so long as it was somebody else that was losing their job.)
In Hazard, Kentucky, the mine owners response to new technologies and automation was to threaten the mine workers with low wages or risk being replaced by machines or the closure of their financially unviable mines. Hazard was already a region blighted by poverty and relied heavily on the mines for employment. Beginning in 1962 the mine workers of Hazard began protesting against the unfair terms being forced on them by the mine owners, leading to violent clashes with strikebreakers and heavily armed security personnel employed by the mine owners. In the summer of 1963 eight of the miners, including Berman Gibson, were arrested for conspiring to blow up a railroad bridge. Calling the strike unofficial the United Mine Workers’ Union refused to come to the aid of the eight, leading to calls for support from elsewhere. By the end of 1963 the Hazard strike had become a cause celebre amongst leftists. Gibson went on a speaking tour to raise awareness of the cause, telling all who would listen that “I was too strong a union man for the United Mine Workers…all we askin’ for is justice – men just shouldn’t have to live this way”.
In March 1963 the Committee for Miners was established, with whom Arthur Gorson (who would later become Phil’s manager) helped organise benefit concerts in New York and tours of Hazard with groups of activists and singers. Phil appeared at such an event in November 1963 and opened with Automation Song, “a striking picture of the working men who have built America and now walk down a jobless roads” (according to Josh Dunson in Broadside #36). According to Danny Schechter, what the Hazard strike represented wasn’t simply the coming together of disparate, leftist forces to support a wildcat strike, but a more fundamental call to tackle the real “enemies within”;
“widespread deprivation, a stagnant economy unable to provide for those most in need, local systems of justice oblivious to constitutional rights, and a labor movement hamstrung by an approach to social and economic problems grounded in traditional and outmoded assumptions and practices”.
Considering such a heavy subject matter, that has echoed from the Luddites in 19th Century England to season two of The Wire, Automation Song has a rather jaunty tune, with the only moment of poetry (“And now the roads are there like ribbons in the sky”) jarringly placed somewhat amidst the rather prosaic lyric. Of course as a song it’s nothing special, but in that typical Phil Ochs way it’s a rather nice, well intentioned nothing special, and rather more sympathetic in tone than his bossy That’s What I Want To Hear (“And you tell me that your job was taken away by a big ol’ greasy machine”). Then again Phil’s protest songs were always at their most biting when he was angry, and with Automation Song he just doesn’t seem angry enough.