A new industrial revolution is under way in the United States, and its lead phalanx has organized labor scurrying to take up defensive positions in the workplace.
With increasing frequency, union leaders see the ranks of blue-collar workers giving ground to "steel-collar workers" -- robots that can perform repetitive tasks tirelessly, quickly, and efficiently.
Unions complain that "tens of thousands of jobs will disappear" in industries able to use computer-controlled machinery. Labor leaders also are concerned that widespread use of robots poses the threat of "large-scale, permanent unemployment, a degradation of skills, and new work hazards."
At the same time, labor leaders concede that this revolution offers a promise of something the AFL-CIO and major unions have been calling for urgently: the revitalization of American industry, which brings with it prospects of higher productivity, less expensive and better-quality products, and potentially more leisure for workers.
But labor has not decided what to do about the situation, although unions talk about pressing employers to use the new technology to benefit society rather than for private profit and competitive advantage.
The "threat" -- as the unions see it -- of robots in industry has been around for a long time. But in recent years major corporations have thrown doors open to the so-called steel- collar worker.
More than 5,000 robots now are working in US factories. More than two-thirds of these are doing material-handling, welding, spray painting, and repetitive assembly jobs. Many of the tasks robots perform are considered undesirable by their human counterparts because of heat, fumes, unpleasant working conditions, and the exertion required. Robots can function tirelessly and for about one-third of the labor cost of humans.
General Motors recently announced that it expects to use about 14,000 robots in its plants by the end of this decade. It now has "just over 300" robots, most of them used for spot- welding. But its immediate goal is to have 2,500 on the job by the end of 1983 and double that number in 1985. Chrysler has replaced 200 welders at an East Detroit plant with 50 robots that, it says, do 20 percent more work than the displaced humans.
Richard Beecher, head of GM's machine perception and robotics department, says the new technology could be the salvation of the troubled US auto industry. Jobs will be lost, he admits, but "there will be no jobs for any of us unless we use the technology; we will all be driven out of the market by our competitors."
General Electric and Westinghouse have multimillion-dollar plans to put hundreds of robots to work in their electrical manufacturing plants. The United Electrical Workers (UEW) has charged that GE's longer-term plans "Could replace half of the company's 37,000 assembly workers with robots."
The International Union of Electrical Workers is just as concerned. IUEW, which has held a number of conferences recently on robotics, said GE now is using at least 111 robots and expects to have 200 in use by the end of the year.The IUEW, UEW, and other unions with GE contracts say they "are not going to wait until 1982 contract negotiations" to take the robot issue up with the company "because of the impact robots can have on our members jobs."
A GE official denies that robots have cause any major cutbacks in jobs. Instead, he says, in the years ahead robotics will open up tens of thousands of new jobs.
Other industries with plans for large-scale robot programs include casting and foundry industries, light manufacturing, heavy manufacturing, and aerospa ce industries.