The Tech Sector’s Push And Pull: When Workers Who Deploy AI Turn To Unions

by | Mar 19, 2024 | AFL-CIO, ChatGPT, CWA, IAM, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Positive Workplace, Tech - Media, Trending, Unions

As you know, AI jitters in the workplace are simmering while industries grapple with embracing a new AI-driven tech wave. These fears are nothing new and are really a tale as old as time, although initial trepidation among workers is understandable. We recently saw these anxieties dominate the 146-day strike by Hollywood writers, who went back to work after the Writers Guild of America and studios agreed to a contract with certain stipulations on how AI can be used on the job.

That dust-up showcased workers’ existential fear that intricately woven lines of code could overshadow their skill sets. Yet what happens when the human minds at work within the AI-tech realm—which is fueling the very reason that some workers are turning to unions—decide to seek their own third-party representation?

It’s happening: As technology advances and organizing campaigns receive more media attention, these realms are increasingly intertwined as union activity spreads into previously untouched industries. The trend also shows no signs of slowing down as unions grow increasingly emboldened by the chest-pounding of Big Labor leaders demanding 32-hour workweeks on the Senate floor.

This brings us to a new development at a Chicago-based biotech lab, Tempus AI, home of the ongoing quest for better cancer treatments by analyzing diseased cells to tailor care to each patient. This month, Tempus workers voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), a small win in the tech sector, which unions would like to move into.

It’s not too shocking, ultimately: A few years ago, that news may have arrived as a surprise, given that the tech industry has largely resisted organizing in the past since unions were traditionally viewed as stifling innovation due to their unwillingness to embrace tech advances. Likewise, tech workers have historically done relatively well in terms of working conditions and pay, compared to many blue-collar professions.

Yet the ongoing waves of organization in other sectors have encouraged tech workers to warm up to the idea of unionization. Not to mention the neutrality agreement reached in December 2023 between Microsoft and the AFL-CIO.

This shift is partially due to younger generations being overall friendlier toward union interests, although they will likely end up disappointed in the long run. After all, most of those workers did not grow up with the experience of watching their parents wrestle with the realities of living under a union constitution.

What are the key takeaways? First, employers must acknowledge that no industry is immune from the lure of union representation these days. Second, the tech industry’s own roadmap is constantly writing and rewriting itself, so expect significant changes to continue. Third, the double-edged sword of tech will continue to rear its head as AI makes more advances. Ideally, employers will be proactive in helping workers feel at ease while rolling out any new uses for AI so that a union doesn’t swoop in to capitalize upon fears. That rarely turns out well for anyone other than the union’s pocketbooks.

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