How trade unions are addressing automation

The first wave of computerized automation caught trade unions flat-footed; already reeling from the Reagan-era attacks on labor, union leadership failed completely to come up with a coherent response to the automation of manufacturing industries (a notable exception was the longshoremans’ union, which ensured that containerization led to massive pay raises and generous retirements for the workers whose work was largely eliminated by better shipping techniques).

With a second wave of automation upon us, unions representing service workers and truck drivers are floating more nuanced responses to automation, calling for worker input into how their jobs are automated, “about how technology can assist the work we perform and ease the rigors of our work, how our members are trained, what happens to workers who would otherwise be tagged as redundant, how our members are repositioned to succeed or hired into other workplaces.”

It’s exemplary of the new labor consciousness of protecting workers’ interests in an era of technological abundance — ensuring that as work disappears into automated systems, workers themselves share in the dividends of that automation.

Unite Here is following a similar path. Mr. Singh listed the union’s goals for Marriott contracts: “We want to talk about how technology can assist the work we perform and ease the rigors of our work, how our members are trained, what happens to workers who would otherwise be tagged as redundant, how our members are repositioned to succeed or hired into other workplaces.”

In June, the union managed for the first time to include protections from technological change in its contracts covering workers at the Las Vegas properties of MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. Workers will be trained to do jobs created or modified by new technology, allowing them to share in the productivity gains. The contracts also provide for the company to try to find jobs for displaced workers. But the union’s key achievement was to get 180 days’ warning of technological deployments.

“They have to let us know and show us the prototypes and must negotiate with us,” Mr. Taylor said. “At the end of the day, they can move forward, but this gives us time to understand the effects.”

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