AFL-CIO Views the Future of Work -- Strategically

On May 3, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka opened the presentation of the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. The presentation was divided into three segments, the first a discussion of the ideas of union leaders.

One view was that “acquiescence bargaining” — in which unions approve new working conditions and technologies in return for more (or less) pay or benefits — was becoming less relevant and that artificial intelligence AI automation were an increasing threat to employment.

According to the commission’s presentation, it appears the U.S. labor movement’s weakness has blocked it from replicating European unions, who negotiate technological functions and communications. Norwegian unions, for example, have negotiated changes in new technology that allow workers to communicate better with each other. Historically, the Soviets’ factory practices ensured that their assembly line had workers close enough to each other to communicate, while U.S. corporations have tried to keep assembly line stations far enough from each other to inhibit worker interaction.

The main fear of union leaders is the loss of jobs in the next decades due to the pace of technological change. Change and the Republican war on education seem to have a real potential for chaos. One union leader suggested that future employment would require periodic sabbaticals for all workers. The idea is to both renew training and education, and to make space for hiring additional workers replacing workers on sabbatical.

Education is a basic concern of the AFL-CIO. Millennial workers share this focus as one presenter noted that 50 percent of younger workers already have associate degrees or more. It seems millennial workers are adapting to the increased challenges through education. It was noted that the AFL-CIO already trains more workers than everyone but the U.S. military. The Building Trades training has moved on from paper and blueprints to tablets, and now virtual reality tech.

Some union leaders pay attention to the possibility of a universal basic income (UBI) but fear it may only create a subclass in poverty.

Labor Trends and Analysis

Unions see self-driving vehicles and automation as potential employment problems but other analysts are less pessimistic. From the start of the U.S. to the 1850s, the number of farmers declined from 90 percent to 40 percent of the population, but this transition did not create unemployment because people found new jobs in a growing economy. However, this type of transition may not be so easy today. It might happen more easily as the general population becomes more educated, but we will have to deal with the one percent having their own ideas of where the national funds go, as well as the Republicans’ war on education.

The diversity among young workers is extensive and a driving force. Women and people of color will soon make up 50 percent of the workforce.

The historic mode of labor relations called Taylorism is still a force that undercuts labor. Taylorism or scientific management treats workers as robots to be programed by engineers and has not been abandoned. Amazon has upgraded it to have automation “run” the workers. Taylorism reinforces the view that labor is a factor in your spreadsheet to be programed and not a partner in production and creation. In Europe some workers and their unions play a role in creative processes. As people become more educated or highly trained, they are more likely to want to be part of the process. This creates a current trend in some jobs of using computers to expand the worker’s reach. For most of us, how we work will be an area of struggle.

A theory opposing Taylorism is that of Total Quality Management,  (TQM) developed by W. Edwards Deming. Deming argued that management needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the work and to give the workers the analytical tools to facilitate change. The idea is to get those closest to the work to analyze the problems. Some labor analysts oppose the quality movement because workers mostly do not get compensated for their mental labor. However, involving workers in planning could prepare them to bargain better.

Young Workers

Karen Rice, a doctoral student in philosophy at Georgetown University, topped off the section on new labor with the story of the new graduate student union at Georgetown. The graduate students’ unionization effort was influenced by the university management’s lack of concern with labor issues. Georgetown University saw graduate work as a benefit that needed little compensation, but when a graduate student was fired because she did not show up for work four days after having a baby, it was clear (to the grad students) that things needed to change. Georgetown University has an ethic, taken from Christianity, which is to guide life. The grad students mobilized to lobby stakeholders (parents and donors) on how that ethic was being ignored at a special university day. The administration soon came to the students for bargaining.

Another AFL-CIO effort is focused on Silicon Valley. This effort is just beginning, with no major events so far.

This presentation was a chance to see what AFL-CIO leaders and their allies are thinking about the future of work. If you can get away from your work in DC, similar meetings will provide new information and networking possibilities.

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