Editorial: Job actions set up labor for the future

United Auto Workers members hold picket signs near a General Motors Assembly Plant in Delta Township, Mich., Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The UAW union expanded its two-week strikes against Detroit automakers Friday, adding 7,000 workers at a Ford plant in Chicago and a General Motors assembly factory near Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

United Auto Workers members hold picket signs near a General Motors Assembly Plant in Delta Township, Mich., Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The UAW union expanded its two-week strikes against Detroit automakers Friday, adding 7,000 workers at a Ford plant in Chicago and a General Motors assembly factory near Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya—AP

Published: 10-09-2023 10:17 AM

This summer and autumn of labor discontent signals not only the rise of a revitalized union movement. It also represents a substantive attempt to shape the forces of technological innovation that promise to transform the American workplace and the lives of American workers.

The Hollywood writers represented by the Writers Guild of America, for example, ended their strike after reaching an agreement with the studios that establishes strong safeguards on the use of artificial intelligence in the creative process. The writers did not seek to ban AI, but rather to define the ways it can be used in the creative context. Broadly speaking, under the terms of the new contract AI cannot be used to replace humans, but it can be employed to complement their work. For example, writers cannot be forced to use tools like ChatGPT, but they can if they want to and the studios agree.

Among those applauding the new contract is Simon Johnson, an MIT economist who specializes in technological transformation. “I’m hoping it will be a model for the rest of the economy,” he told The Guardian. The potential for AI to transform many sectors of the economy is obvious; what is not clear is whether workers in many other industries have the same bargaining power wielded by the Writers Guild. But a template now exists for labor: Embrace the technology, but make it work for employees well as employers.

Similarly, the current United Auto Workers Union strike is about much more than the usual bread-and-butter issues such as wages and working conditions, although those are certainly on the bargaining table. As they should be: The autoworkers made significant concessions during the Great Recession and have yet to make up lost ground, while the carmakers have reaped rich profits.

But the two sides are also locked in a struggle over how to meet the challenges posed to carmakers’ future profitability and to workers’ job security by the transition to electric vehicles. The issue is complex, but boils down to the fact that electric vehicles require fewer parts than their internal combustion predecessors and thus may render many current jobs obsolete.

John Casesa, senior managing director of Guggenheim Securities, told The New York Times, that, “The transition to E.V. is dominating every bit of this discussion. It’s unspoken. But really, it’s all about positioning the union to have a central role in the new electric industry.” That's crucial not only for the nation's economy, but also to combating climate change. If blue-collar workers are being asked to buy into the clean-energy revolution, economic dislocation has to be minimized. The clean-energy economy has to be one that provides the same kinds of opportunities for secure middle-class jobs with benefits that autoworkers have historically enjoyed.

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The five-year contract the Teamsters negotiated this summer with United Parcel Service on behalf of more than 300,000 UPS employees appeared to be a more conventional negotiation, in that it secured substantial wage increases and addressed working conditions such as requiring air conditioning and better ventilation in delivery vehicles. In a larger sense, though, it represented an effort to distribute more fairly the rich fruits of the years-long economic transformation from bricks-and-mortar retailing to online shopping. Tellingly, after union President Sean O’Brien celebrated setting a new standard that “raised the bar for pay, benefits and working conditions in the package-delivery industry,” he took the opportunity to fire a warning shot. “This is the template for how workers should be paid and protected nationwide, and nonunion companies like Amazon better pay attention.”

Closer to home, the University of Vermont Medical Center reached agreement last month with its newest union, which represents 2,000 support staff members, on a three-year contract that boosts wages by over 20% on average. The new union represents a wide variety of workers such as nursing assistants, food service workers and custodians, whose contributions to the health care system have been undervalued. The national shortage of health care workers no doubt provided leverage for the union to achieve some of its goals.

In the broadest sense, these unions are fighting for workers to have a place at the table where decisions are made about what work they do and how they do it, restoring the traditional balance of power between capital and labor. For many years now in America, big corporations have enjoyed enormous profits fueled by technological innovation while dictating the terms of employment. Perhaps a new era is dawning in which the voice of workers will be heard and heeded.