By Marcus Kuhs
Humans have long been fascinated with predicting how technological advancements will alter the fabric of society. Various historical zeitgeists have their own futurist aesthetics, such as Victorian era steampunk, post-World War Two atompunk, 1980s raygun gothic, and twenty-first century cyberpunk to name a few. One common thread in each of these characterizations of the future is that automized technology will drastically improve our lives However, the idealized image of automation starkly contrasts with the difficulties and concerns of its implementation.
Take the following hypothetical as an example of automation’s potential danger to labor. Imagine working as a package handler for Amazon, keeping in mind that Amazon employees are not unionized and are thus afforded little protections against being terminated or laid off from their jobs. A widget that can sort packages into loading areas exponentially faster than a single employee gets invented and implemented at your worksite. Now, with Amazon prioritizing processing speed, it shifts it labor force away from sorting packages to loading delivery trucks. Next, a robotics company creates a robot that can lift thousands of pounds of packages and load them on to a truck. With Amazon prioritizing efficiency of getting deliveries out of their plants and onto customers’ front steps, it shifts its labor force to driving delivery trucks. Then, Amazon purchases a fleet of driverless delivery trucks which get into accidents less and completes routes without needing to stop for bathroom breaks or rest breaks. One can start to see the picture: manual labor at large companies is chipped at with each technological development that assumes traditional work from employees. While this is a hypothetical, it is actually not far off from fruition.
Furthermore, it is a common misconception that “white collar” jobs and jobs that require creativity, subjective thinking, or artistic capabilities are safe from automation. Many human-workers commit their labor to enhance workflow or input data both of which can be automized by software programs that will do its tasks more efficiently. Even teachers could be at risk of losing job functions to automation advancements as early as 2030.
What about the unionized sector? Despite making up a small portion of the American workforce, one would think that unions are relatively insulated by their collective bargaining agreements. Union members in theory could demand higher wages, more overtime hours, increased benefits, or resist the implementation all together. However, automation is not an American concept. Technological developments in other countries will only compound the existing dangers to unions brought by the globalization of labor, outsourcing of work, and international competition
Automation is not the death knell for the labor movement, however. Labor unions globally are adapting to the implementation of automation by training workers to be able to assess the human-technology relationship in their current lines of work as well as giving their bargaining unit members general professional training. It must also be kept in mind that unions have fought and adapted to automation before. In the 1950s, the birth of computers virtually eliminated thousands of jobs overnight, but the global labor force adapted to its implementation and created new labor opportunities in its wake. Today, after all of the hysteria that was caused by the computer’s implementation in the labor market, the tech industry is beginning to unionize and secure long-term stakes in their ultra-valuable labor market. Furthermore, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled repeatedly that reductions to the workforce, transfer of bargaining unit work, or implementing workplace changes that would affect members of the bargaining unit in a substantial way is a mandatory subject of bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. Thus, each time automation is implemented at a plant or worksite, unions will have an opportunity to negotiate over the implementation. In essence, a FedEx factory wishing to implement a robotic arm that completes the work of a unionized plant worker quicker would need to be bargained over.
American unions vying to get ahead of the automation curve need to rapidly start increasing membership. The more members a union has, the better chance the union has in influencing labor policy by threatening strikes and other disruptive techniques. In other words, the more members walking out on strike, the harder it is for an employer to whether the storm when they try to implement technology threatening jobs. Perhaps the best strategy available to unions at this exact moment is political influence. The downturn in manufacturing and unionization since 2000 is partially the fault of stagnating policy and lawmakers’ inability to come up with plans to help American workers after labor was outsourced to China en masse. Unions are incredibly influentially locally and nationally with lawmakers and policy influencers. Having greater say from unions in policy could help cushion extenuating factors affecting union membership and job security.
American workers should not fear automation. Now that technological advancements are being implemented more frequently, it would be quite ironic if humanity fully resisted it because we have spent decades fantasizing about it. Automation offers a chance to do more regarding and fulfilling work. Unions already are embracing automation as a way of reskilling and upskilling workers and making them more marketable, trained, and efficient.
Let us not shun technological advancements that make our lives easier. Let us not waste any more time performing menial tasks. Instead, let us embrace the changes on the horizon and allow it to help us complete more fulfilling and meaningful work.
Student Bio: Marcus Kuhs is a current second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School and a staff member on The Journal of High Technology Law. He is pursuing a career in labor and employment law. Marcus holds a B.A. in History and Peace and Conflict Studies and a minor in Italian Studies from the University of Massachusetts: Lowell.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School