A few century in the past, a poor nation in northern Europe made an enormous leap into modernity. Utilizing new know-how, engineers constructed hydroelectric dams to harness the power in Sweden’s roaring rivers, producing electrical energy which might, for the primary time, discover sensible use in properties, factories, railways and agriculture.
Happening a long time after Sweden’s nineteenth-century mechanisation, this electrification was the nation’s second industrial revolution. It introduced with it highly effective forces of change that swept via civilian life, stoking tensions between employers and employees as evidenced by an enormous enhance in strike motion on the time.
However right here’s the place the narrative takes a stunning flip. In contrast to the well-known machine-breaking Luddites of Britain’s first industrial revolution, Sweden’s protesting employees didn’t appear anxious or indignant concerning the technological change going down of their factories. As an alternative of fearing for his or her jobs, our latest research discovered that the overwhelming majority of Sweden’s strikers had been merely demanding increased wages.
As we speak, we’re dwelling via a fourth industrial revolution, marked by advances in computing energy and breakthroughs in synthetic intelligence. It has provoked its personal backlash – some name it a “techlash” – and has induced some employees to worry that new machines will take their jobs.
The fourth industrial revolution may result in a darkish future
Sweden’s employees expressed no such sentiment through the nation’s electrification, suggesting that revolutionary applied sciences can empower employees somewhat than leaving them feeling susceptible or exploited – a lesson we may apply to in the present day’s improvements and the anxieties which have accompanied them.
For some a long time across the flip of the twentieth century, Sweden skilled a interval of upheaval. Employees had begun to type unions and carry out strikes. Strike motion turned more and more audacious, resulting in the inserting of a bomb on a ship named Amalthea in 1908, which had carried British strikebreakers to the docks of Malmö. The explosion killed one and wounded 23.
wikimedia, CC BY
A 12 months later, organised labour and capital met in an excellent showdown of strikes and lockouts. Employers would ultimately come out on high. However protests continued via the primary world struggle, with odd women and men taking to the streets to protest hovering meals costs. Revolution was within the air, forcing politicians to lastly take strikes to increase voting rights for working-class individuals.
This was a formative part for Sweden’s establishments and the social contract between residents and the state. It additionally occurs to have been a time when Sweden was busily constructing a nationwide grid, powering properties and factories with electrical energy generated by its new hydropower vegetation.
For employees, this meant change. Electrical energy enabled house owners to dispose of the only coal-fired engines that drove machines by way of a collection of belts, utilizing as an alternative a variety of smaller motors for every machine. This offered companies with a extra dependable supply of power, growing the tempo and continuity of manufacturing. This in flip made some jobs out of date – although it additionally created new ones.
It’s tempting to imagine that these forces – technological change and labour conflicts – had been associated. The narrative shut handy is that employees went on strike to dam the brand new know-how and to save lots of their jobs.
We all know that was typically the case in Britain through the first industrial revolution, when some employees torched their very own mills and destroyed their newly mechanised looms. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the key Luddite motion continued in the identical spirit and later, within the 1830s, agricultural employees protested the introduction of threshing machines within the so-called Swing Riots.
The Victorians had the identical considerations about know-how as we do
Sten Sjöberg/IBL/wikimedia, CC BY-SA
For our analysis, we searched the information of over 8,000 work stoppages recorded by Swedish authorities between 1863 and 1927. Amongst these occasions, we had been stunned to not discover a single strike with the declared goal of protesting electrification, and only a handful of strikes that had been described as makes an attempt to reverse mechanisation extra usually.
To see if there have been extra delicate hyperlinks between know-how and labour battle, we then performed a extra rigorous evaluation, consulting maps of the early electrical energy grid and evaluating them in opposition to census information on Sweden’s parishes on the time.
Earlier than electrification, the parishes didn’t differ all that a lot. However because the grid materialised, these parishes that had been provided electrical energy all of the sudden skilled radical adjustments, together with a pointy enhance in strikes. So whereas employees didn’t instantly relate their strike motion to electrification, our findings counsel the 2 had been certainly linked.
Fourth industrial revolution
We all know that the strikes elevated amongst Sweden’s industrial employees, whose expertise had been in excessive demand, however not for agricultural employees, whose jobs had been disappearing. We see the identical sort of sample in the present day: high-demand Google employees have fashioned a union and have been on strike, however employees in declining industries have misplaced their bargaining energy and their collective voice.
However not like Sweden’s expertise of electrification, in the present day’s industrial revolution contains a sturdy worry of automation, with some researchers predicting that 47% of jobs within the US might be prone to technological alternative. This worry has solely been exacerbated by the financial uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
We will perceive in the present day’s automation anxiousness just about our research of Swedish employees. Technological revolutions typically produce suspicion and anxiousness, however we discovered no such response from the unions and strikers we researched. As an alternative, it’s clear that new applied sciences may empower employees – however solely after they recognise that they should get pleasure from a share of the elevated productiveness delivered by technological change.
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Tobias Karlsson doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.