Abstract: Technological innovation has had far-reaching implications for labour and for the world of work generally. It has led to job losses, the creation of new jobs, the loss of some skilled positions and the creation of new ones, and an increase in the quality of products like steel. Literature that addresses union responses to technological innovation in production has tended to classify them as either reactive or proactive, with reactive responses predominating. This article examines how South African trade unions in the steel, automotive and chemical industries have responded to technological changes. Based on interviews and documentary analysis, it argues that the unions have adopted a rearguard approach, responding to technological changes only after management has already implemented them. Unions have tended to prioritise “politics from above” and traditional union issues such as wage negotiations. In addition, the current division within unions has contributed to their inability to improve their servicing of members, let alone organise precarious workers and engage with issues of technological innovation.