Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the AFL-CIO Convention, Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 7, 1960

Today we stand on the threshold of a new industrial revolution – the revolution of automation. This is a revolution bright with the hope of a new prosperity for labor and a new abundance for America – but it is also a revolution which carries the dark menace of industrial dislocation, increasing unemployment, and deepening poverty.

Already entire automobile engines are being manufactured, untouched by human hands. Modern lathes and drills are turning out parts machined to the closest tolerances, guided only by electrical impulses which make the settings and automatically correct all errors. Electronic equipment is sorting material as it enters a warehouse and carrying it – without human guidance – to its proper place of storage. And in the future, as the complexity, the versatility, and the precision of modern technology continues its inevitable advance, thousands of processes and functions now performed by men will be done, more cheaply and more efficiently, by machine.  

These revolutionary changes in the nature of our industrial system are a challenge to our leadership, our vision and our resourcefulness.  For the steady replacement of men by machines – the advance of automation – is already threatening to destroy thousands of jobs and wipe out entire plants. It is creating fear among workers, and among the families of workers. It is menacing the existence of entire communities. And it can create poverty and want and even hunger – as it has already done in the coal mines of West Virginia where I saw the sad spectacle of men, displaced by machines, unable to find work, unable to shelter their families, and unable to feed their children – the forgotten children of the richest country in the history of the world.  

But this is not the inevitable product of advancing technology. We have not created new machines so that they can destroy our prosperity and our economic health. Today – as we have done in the past – we must translate our skill and our inventive genius into abundance and strength and a better life for all Americans.  

Only because advancing knowledge has been adapted to the production of goods, are washing machines, and television sets, and automobiles and electric lights and a thousand other products, now within the range of the average income. And only because of new discoveries do we enjoy the unparalleled luxury of being the first nation ever to worry about an overabundance of goods. The history of man’s economic progress has been the history of such discoveries: Looms replaced hand weavers. Electric motors replaced human muscle. Bulldozers and hydraulic lifts have replaced men digging with shovels and straining at heavy weights. And each advance – each more efficient machine – has not only increased production and raised our standard of living, but it has also improved drastically the hours and the conditions of labor. In an eight-hour day, five-day week, the modern worker produces more than twice as much as his grandfather did, working twelve hours a day, six days a week.  

And there is no reason why the advances of the future – like those of the past – should not bring even greater changes, easing the conditions of labor, shortening hours, lightening work and bringing new and cheaper and better products into every American home.  

But if this vision of a stronger and more prosperous America is to become a reality – if automation is to be the key to a brighter future rather than the forerunner of economic distress – then labor and management and government must work together to ease the inevitable dislocations and hardships which this new industrial revolution will bring. No one – especially labor – is opposed to economic progress. No one wants to work the old, back-breaking way if there is an easier way to do the job. No worker and no labor leader wants to stand in the way of America’s economic growth. No one wants to keep his fellow worker from sharing the benefits of increased productivity. But our workers do want assurance that they will not be tossed on the scrap heap and forgotten like so many obsolete machines – that they will not be the neglected victims of industrial change, shut off from the new richness which their skill and labor has helped to create.  

This, then, is the challenge to American leadership:  to welcome and stimulate technological progress – with its promise of increasing productivity – while providing new jobs and new hope for the victims of industrial advance.  

Much can be done through collective bargaining – through the willingness of labor and management to cooperate to solve a problem whose solution is vital to the future of industry and workers alike. If men on both sides of the bargaining table approach this problem in good faith they can often alleviate the hardships of automation by working out times and methods of installing new devices so as to reduce the impact on workers with accumulated seniority – those workers who will have the greatest difficulty in adjusting to new occupations. A company can train its men for the new jobs which new machines will create – or it can arrange for transfers to other plants. Seniority problems can be met. Severance pay and supplemental unemployment benefits can be provided. 

Today farseeing management and union officials are already working toward the solution of such problems. But labor and management alone cannot do the job. The problems of automation often transcend union and industry lines. Many of those affected are unwilling or unable to act to prevent increased unemployment and mounting hardship. And the result of this inaction is economic dislocation which harms the economy of the entire nation, and which demands a national solution. And there is also a vital national interest in ensuring that technological advance is translated into economic advance for a growing America.  

Yes, the problems of automation are national problems, and their solution can be greatly aided by effective and vigorous government leadership – leadership which will increase rather than impair economic freedom.  

First, automation and the efficient use of manpower should be a major topic at a national conference of industrialists and labor union officials. Such a conference should seek solutions to the problems of automation, and reaffirm the determination of labor and management to make full use of modern technology and to protect the interests of affected employees while the conversion is being made.

Second, we must make it plain that the installation of new processes and new machines is properly a subject of collective bargaining. The time has passed when employers could assert the prerogative of unilateral action in a matter so vital to the welfare of their employees.  

Third, through a program of technical assistance Government can assist companies which are acting in good faith to find methods of installing new machines and methods without undue hardship to employees. The Department of Agriculture furnishes technical assistance to farmers. The Bureau of Mines advises the mining industry. The Department of Labor must also aid industries to make the difficult transitions of automation.

Fourth, the Government should assist men who have been displaced by machines in finding equal or better jobs in other industries. Today state agencies, supported by federal aid, try to refer men to jobs in the surrounding areas. But we must begin to think of job opportunities on a national scale – to alert displaced workers to labor needs across the country – to give them the opportunity to move where they are needed. We can do this by strengthening the expanding the United States Employment Service. By so doing we will be preserving our most precious resource – our reserve of skilled manpower.  

Fifth, the Government must greatly increase its support for programs to retrain men for different work, including the new jobs which technological development will create. The Bureau of Apprenticeship Training already does an excellent job – but such training programs must be expanded to include displaced workers. Such an investment in retraining will yield vast dividends in increased production, increased personal income and increased human welfare.  

Sixth, we must revise our outmoded unemployment compensation laws to allow a displaced worker to engage in a retraining program without losing his unemployment benefits. Today such a worker – under the terms of the law – is technically not available for employment, and thus is stripped of his benefits. Our laws should encourage our workers to retrain themselves, not hinder their efforts to develop new and valuable skills.  

Seventh, we must remember that automation is not merely a specialized problem calling for specialized programs – but one aspect of the entire problem of full employment. In the last analysis, if displaced men are to find jobs – if automation is to result in increased production and prosperity – then the entire American economy must increase its rate of growth. In the past eight years our economic growth has been stifled and hampered by unimaginative and wasteful policies which were the inevitable product of a lack of faith in the great capacity and vigor of the American free enterprise system. Unless these policies are reversed – unless we consciously and vigorously set about the task of stimulating the expansion of our economy – then all the programs which I have outlined – all the solutions which may be proposed – will not be able to halt increasing unemployment and distress.  

Aid to distressed areas, imaginative monetary and fiscal policies, better roads, adequate schools, increased development of our national resources – all these programs – and many other investments which are essential to America’s future – are the real key to our economic health, to the use of technological progress as a source of American strength, and ultimately to our ability to fulfill the vast, international commitments on which the survival of our economic system depends.  

The proposals I have offered will certainly not solve all the problems. Much of the future course of the automation revolution is, as yet, undetermined. As new problems rise, or as new light is shed on old problems, we will need new ideas and new programs. Some hardship is probably inevitable. But by realizing and accepting our responsibilities – your responsibility and mine and the responsibility of industry – we can convert today’s fear of change, into hope for a new and a brighter future.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 909, "AFL-CIO convention, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 7 June 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.