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Technology and Organized Labor

Unions and labor advocates are mobilizing not only in response to the recent surge of inflation, but also to get ahead of recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and other technologies. But will the march of technology breathe new life into organized labor, or will it further empower employers?

PS Quarterly regularly features predictions by experts on a topic of global concern. After a year of large strikes and high-profile negotiations by unions concerned about employers’ potential uses of artificial intelligence, surveillance tools, and other rapidly evolving technologies, organized labor has enjoyed a modest resurgence. Looking ahead to 2024, we asked contributors to comment on the following proposition:

The march of technology will breathe new life into organized labor.

Nicholas Bernards

We sometimes forget that technology doesn’t “march” on its own. Technological change is directed by people, and powerfully shaped by factors such as who is paying for cutting-edge research. As a result, new technology tends to reflect and reinforce the interests of powerful firms and governments, including by extending and entrenching employers’ power in the workplace. We worry about robots replacing workers; but automation is more often used to speed up and discipline workers, rather than to substitute for them. For example, Amazon warehouses are some of the most extensively automated operations on the planet. It is no coincidence that their rates of injury and burnout are more than double those of similar workplaces.