The Double-Edged Sword Of Technology: Unions Working Against The Same Tools That They Embrace

by | Dec 6, 2023 | Artificial Intelligence, Bargaining/Negotiations, ChatGPT, CNA NNOC, CWA, Federal, IBT, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Leadership, Legal, Trending, UAW, Union Leaders, Union Organizing, Unionized Company, Unions

Earlier this week, we discussed how unions are embracing new technology to organize and grow their membership. Another side exists with that coin: how tech, specifically AI and automation, emboldens unions to call strikes over related job security concerns. This angle has prominently figured into 2023, which has seen multiple lengthy work stoppages.

This year’s most significant AI-related labor development: The recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes made AI a front-and-center issue, and no industry can afford to ignore what developed during those negotiations. Granted, the concerns of Hollywood might seem remote to most of us, but over and over again, what happens in California spreads elsewhere

Those twin strikes shut down multiple industries for months. The writers’ union held out for protections against AI being used to crank out scripts without human involvement. Actors received some safeguards from AI replicating their likenesses in movies and TV shows. Much was left up in the air, but a New York Times opinion column from a Cornell University professor advised companies to recognize how these strikes established “a monumental precedent for labor relations in a digital future.”

How did other unions use AI-related conflict to their advantage in 2023?

Teamsters: The union grew vocal during the debate on autonomous vehicles and how they could affect job security in the trucking industry. However, this year’s UPS/Teamsters negotiations largely focused on headline-grabbing topics like pay, benefits, and safety, so it will be interesting to see how much of an issue that driverless vehicles could become for UPS before the new contract’s expiration. 

UAW: Likewise, Shawn Fain patted himself on the back over historic pay raises, but the Big Three negotiations left several questions open regarding EVs. Fain’s subsequent plans for organizing 13 non-union automakers could provide more clues to the union’s tech-related strategy in the future.

Healthcare unions: Finally, a little bit of peace and quiet. (sort of) This industry largely recognized that AI can help patients, workers, and hospitals alike. Considering how much conflict exists elsewhere in healthcare, it’s nice to see that AI prompted sighs of relief somewhere. But, there are rumblings on the horizon, with nurses expressing concerns to Congress and even replacing staff members (rather haphazardly) in one case. 

The Biden perspective: The most union-loving president in U.S. history released an October executive order that (surprise) articulates a reason for workers to organize: “As AI creates new jobs and industries, all workers need a seat at the table, including through collective bargaining, to ensure that they benefit from these opportunities.”

In 2024 and beyond: Look for unions to make more demands related to AI and automation as negotiating committees attempt to prove their worth to members and capitalize on the issue for organizing. Technology-driven anxiety remains nothing new for workers, but as always, employer transparency can go a long way to ease workplace worries, and companies will want to stay aware of changing tech tides.

We cannot predict the pace of future AI advances, only that they happen without much warning. After all, ChatGPT was suddenly revealed slightly over a year ago, and immediately, workers were either enthused or very afraid. Currently, Google has a ChatGPT rival, Gemini, which was released this morning. This level of advancement will continue for quite a while, driving employee concerns, and unions will be ready to use it to their advantage.

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