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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.

So much of what we call “new technology” is about finding novel, innovative ways to exploit workers in the name of maximizing profits. Consider how “gig economy” apps have managed (with varying degrees of success) to reconstitute a wide swath of service-sector workers as “independent contractors” who lack basic benefits such as minimum wages or employer-provided health insurance. Given these tendencies, the “march of technology” will not breathe new life into organized labor. On balance, it threatens to intensify dangerous and exploitative forms of work.

Still, technological change does open new fronts where organized labor can operate. Here, there is some cause for optimism. In recent years, e-commerce warehouses and segments of the gig economy have become sites of considerably more innovative and independent union organizing.

Michele Ford

Advances in digital technology pose a serious threat to organized labor. Even before generative AI hit the scene, companies like McDonald’s and Tesla used SMS (text messaging) and social media to surveil workers and circulate anti-union messages, sometimes even creating fake accounts to discredit union leaders. Governments, too, have used digital technologies to target unions. In the Philippines, for example, the National Union of Journalists identified around 700 cases of dummy accounts targeting media workers. As generative AI becomes more sophisticated, attacks and disinformation targeting unions will be exponentially more effective and harder to combat.

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But the same technologies offer opportunities for union revitalization. Last year, Amazon workers in 30 countries went on strike in response to the company’s use of spyware to facilitate union-busting. Several years earlier, platform-based transportation workers in Indonesia began using the very technologies designed to control them to organize against the platforms. In Australia and several European countries, platform-based workers are now recognized as employees or “employee-like” – a status that provides a pathway to unionization.

The task, then, is for unionists and other labor activists to keep up with the pace of technological change. This is a serious challenge, given that even well-resourced unions with large digital media departments can’t compete with the resources of large companies, let alone governments. The effectiveness and creativity of union responses to the challenges posed by digital technologies will determine whether the opportunities associated with these new technologies ultimately outweigh the threats.

Suzanne Kahn

The 2023 strike wave in the United States – the largest in a generation – showed that workers can and will organize to control how technology shapes their jobs and livelihoods. AI was a central issue in both the screenwriters and actors’ strikes, and the United Auto Workers strike raised concerns about what the rise of electric vehicles (which use fewer parts) would mean for the industry and its labor force. But whether rapidly changing technology breathes new life into organized labor will depend on whether policymakers pay as much attention to labor law as they do to the new technologies themselves.

That said, lawmakers and regulators should not be the only ones tasked with tracking the effects of rapidly advancing technology across industries and crafting specific policies to address those changes. A strong labor union has deeper knowledge of how specific technologies will affect its industry than most policymakers do. As we saw with the 2023 strikes, the concerns actors raised about generative AI (digital replicas) were different from those raised by screenwriters (writers’ credits and rewrites), and neither necessarily applies much to the broader national conversation about AI.

The best way to protect workers, then, is to help them build strong representative organizations – labor unions – to negotiate in their interest as technology is deployed. Unfortunately, most workers do not have such organizations today. The erosion of workers’ rights under federal and state labor laws over the past few decades has contributed to a sharp decline in union density. The rapid deployment of new technologies is now demonstrating that sparse unionization matters for reasons beyond the increased income inequality that has accompanied labor’s declining power. With more and stronger unions, workers would have a much greater say in how technologies are deployed. Policymakers who care about what new innovations mean for workers must commit to enacting labor laws that support worker organizing. That is the key to breathing new life into the labor movement.

Brishen Rogers

As I argue in Data and Democracy at Work, large employers across the economy have been using new technologies – including nascent forms of AI – to reduce workers’ power, and US labor and employment laws have helped them do so by denying workers’ basic rights of privacy and association. As a result, companies can surveil workers ever more closely, pushing them to work harder, faster, and at every possible moment. They can monitor workers’ conversations to spot and stamp out unionization efforts. They can even leverage new data sources to deny workers their basic workplace rights.

Workers have had enough. They have launched a bona fide resistance, rising up to win higher wages, fairer treatment, and more privacy. But this is not a revolt against technology. On the contrary, recent organizing efforts have leveraged social media brilliantly, both to reach other workers and to build public support. Nor are workers against automation. Nobody wants to spend their lives on boring, pointless tasks that a computer or machine could do. Workers just want a voice in how technology is used, so that they, too, can benefit.

If labor succeeds, we could see a very different politics of workplace technology, one where productivity gains are shared fairly, surveillance ensures safety rather than danger, and workers have stable, predictable schedules. In that sense, the proposition gets matters backwards. Rather than technology boosting labor, the march of labor may breathe new life into technology.

Isabelle Schömann

In EU labor markets, digitalization is certainly a key driver of change. While the digital revolution has had positive effects – such as upskilling and freeing workers from mundane, dangerous, or unpleasant tasks – our latest research (conducted across the 27 EU member states, using data from the European Job Quality Index) highlights its downside. We find that digitalization has had a disruptive impact on many key features of work organization, including workload and, especially, working time, with unpaid overtime on the rise. Moreover, the increasing but still unregulated use of algorithmic management and AI at work has raised new concerns about undue and excessive surveillance.

Technological and digital innovation should deliver for all. Workers should benefit from it as much as employers do. That is why the European Trade Union Confederation, along with affiliated labor organizations across Europe, is committed to equipping workers and their representatives with tools to ensure better working conditions through collective bargaining. To that end, we are calling for an EU directive establishing a right to disconnect (from email, text messages, and so forth) during non-working hours; and for a revision to the 2002 European social partners telework agreement. We want a directive that addresses workplace psychosocial (mental health) risks. And we are calling for a directive on platform work, with the aim of protecting gig workers, the “self-employed” (often a bogus designation), and other vulnerable groups from exploitative business models. These are measures we need in order to ensure that digitalization does not undercut workers’ rights.

Heidi Shierholz 

Technology is great for union organizing. Social media, text messages, and videoconferencing allow workers to connect even when they are separated by location or shift, or when employers have prohibited them from discussing unions at work. But technology is also used for union busting. Anti-union employers monitor social media and messaging platforms to see who is talking about unions, and blast-text their employees to pressure them to reject unionization. On net, these forces probably roughly cancel out, meaning that technology will neither breathe new life into labor, nor hinder it.

So, what will breathe new life into organized labor? Spurred by tight labor markets following the 2021 American Rescue Plan, US workers began demanding higher wages and better working conditions, and they often got them. Those wins created momentum, helping propel unions to near-record levels of popularity, particularly among young people. Workers have relearned lessons about the importance of unions that will not be soon forgotten.

That said, enormous obstacles to unionization remain. Tens of millions of workers want a union but do not have one because labor law does not adequately protect their right to organize. Among other things, lawmakers must impose harsher penalties on employers who retaliate against workers for union activity; help new unions secure a contract by prohibiting employers from delaying the process; and bar companies from permanently replacing striking workers. The hope for a new era for organized labor lies in the activism of young people and in labor law reform, not in technology.