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Tech fears are showing up on picket lines

The United Automobile Workers strike is in its second day, and already it’s being framed as potentially the most costly of work stoppages from the “summer of strikes.”

Unions aren’t just fighting for an inflation-beating wage boost. They also are campaigning for job security at a time when workers increasingly fear that shifts to new technologies, including electric vehicles and artificial intelligence, threaten their jobs, and tech bosses themselves say this gloomy outlook is inevitable.

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Union leaders had a seat at the table this month in Washington at an AI forum organized by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, and attended by tech leaders such as Elon Musk, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Jensen Huang of Nvidia. Their presence signals their growing clout in discussions about the future of the technology.

Concern over disruptive technologies are seen on the picket lines. The Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists fear studios are embracing AI tools to generate scripts or copy the performances of actors. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble,” Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, warned in July. “We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

The UAW, meanwhile, is concerned that the industry’s shift to electric vehicles will require fewer workers and that many of the jobs needed will be in battery factories, most of which are not unionized.

Giving workers a voice in the use of technology has taken on new urgency, said Thomas Kochan, an emeritus professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who has been studying the future of work since the 1980s: “Generative AI in particular has just exploded on the scene in a way that’s going to make this one of the most controversial and one of the most important workplace issues of our time.”

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The clock is ticking. It’s strategic for unions to get involved early. Otherwise, companies can say, “We’re already using the technology; we’re not really interested in your ideas about how we could be better using it,” said Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. Companies aren’t legally obligated to negotiate with unions over early-stage decisions on how new technologies are used. Unions “only have a right to negotiate over the impacts of technology on wages, hours and working conditions,” Kochan said. The thornier issue of what and how technology is deployed, he said, is “the frontier of collective bargaining today.”

One breakthrough for labor came in 2018 when Marriott Hotel workers went on strike at 49 locations. After a six-week stoppage, the company agreed to give the union notice before introducing technologies that would affect workers’ jobs and the right to discuss the changes with management.

Why would companies benefit from worker input? “If technologies are not developed with the user in mind, they often fail,” said Lisa Kresge, a research and policy associate at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center, who has written about union responses to technology. Take those Marriott workers: At the time, they said a new housekeeping app sent them inefficiently bouncing between floors when they could have worked faster by cleaning rooms clustered together.

“If the only option that the labor movement places on the table is ‘No, we don’t want the technology that will hurt our workers,’ that will not be enough,” said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of “Power and Progress: Our 1,000-Year Struggle Over Technology & Prosperity.” The key, he said, is for labor to articulate how the technologies can be used “to the great benefit of the workers as well as the businesses.” That’s “what’s missing right now” in the labor negotiations, Acemoglu added.

Federal proposals to regulate AI – in relation to work or otherwise – are barely underway. That leaves the unions, which represent only about 6% of the private-sector workforce, fighting a lonely battle. “If your company is automating, and you want a voice in that process, and you are not unionized,” Acemoglu said, “then there is not much you can do.”

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