This article was produced as part of New America’s Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy.
Labor unions are having a come-back moment in the United States, and they are poised to become more influential as emerging technologies such as AI grip the U.S. job market and impact workers.
American support for unions has been rising since 2009, and an August 2023 Gallup poll suggested the public is rallying behind expanding union influence with two out of three Americans supporting unions. The 67 percent of Americans who approve of labor unions today is down slightly from 71 percent a year ago but marks the fifth straight year this reading has exceeded its long-term average of 62 percent.
President Biden who has taken a position as the “most union-friendly president in American history” became the first sitting U.S. president to join picket lines alongside workers participating in the United Auto Workers (UAW) Strike where concerns about union members losing out in the transition to electric vehicles was a point of contention. The UAW, whose many members work in factories that make vehicles powered by combustion engines, sought assurance that auto giants won’t exploit the transition to electric vehicles to eliminate union jobs and contracts.
Union Role in the Emerging Hydrogen Economy
To further align its net-zero goals with its support of organized labor, the Biden Administration elevated the role of unions in the announcement for the U.S. Department of Energy’s $7 billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program which seeks to boost the emerging hydrogen industry and support America’s movement to net-zero carbons emissions.
“Labor folks in particular have a lot riding on the hydrogen economy,” said Betony Jones, Director of DOE’s Office of Energy Jobs during a national labor and workforce briefing for the program, “it’s an opportunity to retain high-wage, union jobs as we transition to clean energy. These hubs represent a significant opportunity to build a whole new industry.”
While agency officials acknowledged during the briefing that some of the Regional Hydrogen Hubs have room for improvement in how they engage labor, sixty-five labor unions signed letters of support for hub selectees. Twenty percent of the Clean Hydrogen Hub proposal scoring was based on the up-front commitment to engage with labor and community organizations to engage underrepresented workers.
The Energy Department will require community benefit agreements for all hubs which includes labor engagement. Three out of seven hubs already include project labor agreements with the remaining hubs strengthening their labor engagement as the agency finalizes negotiations with selectees over the next few months.
Union Role in Navigating Workplace AI
Tides are changing as unions step up to support workers navigating emerging technology sectors, and it’s not just the hydrogen economy. Unions have been front and center in the debate around AI in the workplace. An example of this is the recently signed agreement by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in Hollywood around concerns of AI adoption by employers in the entertainment industry.
In a guest essay for the New York Times, Adam Seth Litwin, associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, explained that “everyone from autoworkers to white-collar middle managers should be paying very close attention to how this deal was achieved — because it sets a monumental precedent for labor relations in a digital future.”
According to Litwin, unions historically have struggled to put technology use on the bargaining table because unlike issues like wages, benefits, and conditions of employment which are subject to “in good faith” negotiation, technology constitutes a “managerial prerogative” meaning that employers can choose whether or not they are willing to negotiate use of technology like AI.
The WGA deal bucked the trend and set a new precedent that workers can and should have a say in when and how employers implement artificial intelligence at work. The WGA strike around AI was so concerning for Hollywood that it led to the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA joining the W.G.A on the picket lines for the first time in 63 years.
SAG-AFTRA members also voted in favor of a strike authorization for performers working in video games, including voice and motion capture actors, who share concerns of exploitative uses of AI, such as companies making unauthorized copies of their likeness and voice.
And it is important to note that in its August 2023 survey, Gallup found overwhelming support from Americans backing Hollywood writers and actors’ strike, siding with workers seeking protection from losing work to AI.
The role of unions in AI negotiations got another boost from President Biden’s recent Executive Order on AI which specifically stated that, “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.”
The rising support for union influence in the use of AI at work is not just happening in America. I recently led a project for New America and the World Economic Forum’s AI team focused on ensuring that workplace technologies advance job quality and working conditions as well as boost productivity and save money for employers. Our industry-led work affirmed the important role of unions in ensuring that employers and workers strike this “win-win” balance.
In an interview for the World Economic Forum, Tim Noonan, Director of the International Trade Union Confederation and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Action Alliance, stated that “Unions sometimes are mischaracterized as technology luddites. This is far from the truth.”
Noonan goes on to say, “Technology can make jobs better, and unions are ready to pursue co-creation of technology augmentation plans with employers, workers, and even technology vendors. We are seeing this activity grow as the prevalence and power of workplace technologies increases.”
Building Toward Better Union Collaborations Around Technology
Recognizing the need to bolster collective bargaining agreements in response to new technologies, researchers like Lisa Kresge and her team at the University of California Labor Center have put out resources to support unions in addressing technological changes in the workplace.
Researchers and advocates also seek to support executives who want to work with, not against, unions to drive business success, including around technology adoption. For example, writing for Harvard Business Review, Roy Bahat, Thomas Kochan, and Liba Wenig Rubenstein asserted that, “companies achieve the best returns on investments in new technology when they merge implementation with complementary changes in work processes, employee training, and worker input.”
In its race to compete globally and grow the American middle class, the United States has committed to leading in technological innovation as seen with the recent passage of the CHIPS and Science Act.
As the Biden Administration begins to implement its technology-empowered industrial policy agenda, its support of organized labor will well-position labor unions to play a greater and more influential role in representing worker perspectives as emerging technologies continues to impact workplaces across industries.
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