Automation, artificial intelligence and robots are part of the economy. How is their use affecting hourly jobs and workers, especially in alleviating poverty and opening the door to the middle class for more families? Equal Voice News looks at the future of work.
Two and a half years ago, transit planners in Columbus, Ohio, entered a Department of Transit competition for a multimillion-dollar grant designed to make local transportation systems “smart.” On the surface, it seemed utterly noncontroversial. After all, who wouldn’t want the smartest, most cutting-edge technology on buses, light rail and other mass transit vehicles?
However, from the perspective of local bus drivers, the plans weren’t all benign. Buried in the application’s language was a section on reducing labor costs by implementing automation technology along public transit routes.
In the summer of 2016, the planners found out Columbus had won, bringing in a whopping $50 million for transportation innovations over the succeeding years. Soon afterward, transit authority officials signed a deal with a company named May Mobility for a pilot program introducing a small, driverless shuttle onto a downtown route. Other cities, including Austin, Detroit, Denver, Orlando and Portland, had all begun experimenting with similar systems or expressed interest in automation.
May Mobility began testing the electric vehicle on a circular route in downtown Columbus this fall. If all goes well during testing, it will start carrying passengers in December.
There are more than 800 bus drivers in Columbus, paid as much as $28 an hour and represented by Local 208 of the Transport Workers Union of America. For them, the prospect of a free-for-all stampede to automation was an existential threat. After all, they were paid top dollar – and their union-negotiated contract provided comprehensive benefits.
“Health, dental, tuition reimbursement. Health screenings. Many benefits,” says longtime driver Darryl Neal. As a younger man, Neal had been a long-distance trucker. When he and his wife started a family, they realized he would need a more local job, so that he wouldn’t be on the road through his children’s childhood. It was his wife, Neal recalls, who first told him that the local transit authority was hiring. He applied, was interviewed by phone shortly afterward, and soon began driving city buses. He has been driving them ever since.
Historically, a disproportionate number of bus drivers nationwide have been Black. Labor organizers fear that automation trends in public transit, retail, long-distance trucking and fast-food restaurants – all industries employing large numbers of Black and Latino workers – will fall particularly hard on communities of color over the coming years. They view Columbus, where workers at least have a modicum of protection because they have union representation, as a harbinger of things to come in many industries.
In Las Vegas, for example, some hotels are introducing smartphone check-in systems that negate the need for front desk personnel. Kitchens at the larger resorts are starting to use robotic salad makers. And some bars on the Strip may be using robotic cocktail makers within the next few years.
“It’s getting interesting,” says longtime baker Carlos Padilla, who has worked at the Treasure Island Las Vegas casino for the past quarter century. “A lot of the stuff is premade. We’re having to unbox stuff, just put it on bake pans and take it off. It’s not like before, when we used to make everything.”
Fearing the consequences of these trends, the culinary union and others representing workers on the Strip have pushed for contract language that protects their jobs in the face of increased automation.
“There’s a real danger of good jobs being replaced by bad jobs in the short term, as automation occurs,” says Roxana Tynan, executive director of the California-based social justice organization LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy).
To counter that, she argues, groups like hers have to work out “how to expand the political power of low-income families. If you just say this is inevitable and low-wage workers will all be out of a job, it’s the wrong conversation to have.”
In Las Vegas, at least, the unions have been largely successful so far in countering the negative effects on employment of automation, though a few hotels have refused to agree to a new contract for their employees.
Despite successful pushback by some unions, however, the unstoppable nature of technological change and the extreme rapidity of the development of artificial intelligence technology has labor organizations on edge.
That may be because of the sheer number of industries at risk of rapid automation all at once: retail, banking, bus driving, trucking, fast food, lower-end health care work and hotel service jobs, to name a few. These industries employ millions of Americans – and their workforces tend to be disproportionately Black and Latino. For decades, unionized public sector jobs have been a pathway into the middle-class for people of color. And jobs in retail and hotel work have provided stable sources of employment to workers without higher education – many of whom, because of structural inequities in access to education, are Black or immigrants.
Nationwide, 27 percent of the 140,000 Transport Workers Union of America members are Black. In Columbus, that number is higher.
As news of plans to automate transit in Columbus spread, bus drivers began to push back against the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA). They organized rallies, knocked on doors to talk to locals about the proposed changes and lobbied elected officials. They explained it wasn’t that they were opposed to all forms of automation. They just wanted to ensure that driverless vehicles still had operators on board to deal with technological failures, disputes, health emergencies, drunken passengers and so on. They wanted the technology to augment rather than to replace their jobs.
“We’re not fighting this technology,” Neal, a 52-year-old Black man, says. “We’d love it to assist us in the job we do. But in the language of the proposal, the language states that it will cut labor associated with buses.”
Organizers fear Columbus is a bellwether for an increasingly uncertain future.
“Our folks are hearing talk of automated bus lines in a number of cities, which has implications for the workforce,” says Erin Johansson, research director at the Washington, D.C.-based organization Jobs With Justice.
This past September, a report co-funded by Silicon Valley-based Working Partnerships USA and the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education detailed the impact of automation on the trucking industry. The report outlined a future for the industry in which the better-paid, long-haul trucking jobs – work that currently provides employment to 294,000 of the country’s more than 2 million truck drivers – ultimately gave way to driverless vehicles.
In this hypothetical future, human drivers ended up with predominantly short-haul, low-paid delivery jobs – or were relegated to simply dropping off goods to “autonomous truck ports,” from where the drone trucks would take over.
The angst around accelerating automation trends is magnified by discomfort at current sociopolitical realities: rampant inequality and racial tensions that are surfacing throughout society. That angst is also exacerbated by concerns over the long-term economic well-being of the country.
While unemployment numbers are currently low, many people dropped out of the labor force in the wake of the 2008 crash, millions of jobs barely pay subsistence wages, and the social safety net is under sustained political attack. Given the 2008 crash, there is a sense of permanent precariousness, one that is reflected by polls that show many Americans are afraid their children’s economic status will be less secure than their own.
Any economic dislocation that falls particularly hard on people of color and replaces well-paid work with lower-paid labor is especially likely to set off alarm bells.
“Black and Latino workers and immigrant workers in the trucking sector and service work are much more likely to have their jobs reshaped and job quality eroded by technology,” says Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA. “They are already the workers in the lowest positions, and they have less bargaining power.”
Mehrens says Blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to end up working in janitorial, security and driving jobs for technology companies than Whites and Asian-Americans. Higher-level jobs in computing and tech support, which are held more frequently by Whites and Asian-Americans, are, by contrast, more immune to automation.
Johansson, of Jobs With Justice, says there are two ways to do automation, each representing a distinct set of economic priorities. Employers can bring in a robotic workforce controlled by an off-site managerial class, with only a few laborers kept on to do the unskilled, low-paid leftover work. Or they can keep their existing employees but retrain them to work with the automated systems. That way, they keep their pay grade, but the type of work they do changes to meet the new technological needs. If the first version, the low-wage model, becomes the norm, Johansson says it will “have a really detrimental effect on communities of color.”
Economists debate whether discussions of automation are hyperbolic. These conversations usually involve “end of human work” doomsday scenarios and urgent calls to introduce a basic guaranteed income as a way to shore up families’ purchasing power as the labor market shrivels.
It’s true that artificial intelligence seems to be a game changer. But robotics has been a part of the production line for upwards of half a century already. The labor-saving methods pioneered by Henry Ford and others have dominated industry for more than 100 years, and the notion of machines replacing humans has been a part of the political and economic conversation for centuries – at least since the Luddites took to destroying machinery in England during the early years of the industrial revolution.
Through all of these moves toward automation, despite the grim scenarios detailed by critics of change, the need for human labor has remained.
In 2013, a computer engineer and an economist at Oxford University published a headline-inducing report that concluded nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. (47 percent to be precise) could be lost to automation in the next 20 years. But other experts are nowhere near as pessimistic.
“I’m largely skeptical of the notion we’re going to have large-scale automation,” says Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics at New College of Florida who has spent years studying the issue. “There’s always some automation. The question is, are we destroying jobs faster than we can create jobs? There’s no evidence for that. Job churn is an indicator of a healthy economy.”
The notion that automation collapses employment has critics. They mention how the introduction of ATMs by banks did not catastrophically reduce the number of employees working for financial institutions. And they also quote figures showing that increased used of robotics in the auto industry did not end all human employment in automobile production.
Most thinkers about automation acknowledge that machines can free people up from particularly boring, repetitive labor, but they also recognize risks given power imbalances and economic inequalities. After all, while there are still auto workers, the power of the United Automobile Workers union is far reduced from its heyday. And new employees in the auto industry start at lower wage and benefits tiers than earlier generations of workers.
The implementing of these so-called “two-tier” pay scales picked up steam post-2008, when companies used the crisis created by the near collapse of the financial system to fundamentally restructure their labor forces. Understandably, among labor advocates, there’s concern that new technology, such as increasingly sophisticated tools of automation, can be wielded by employers as a sword of Damocles: Agree to wage cuts and benefits reductions or face job loss due to increased automation.
“We should do scenario planning for the multiple possible futures,” says Dorian Warren, president of Community Change and co-chair of the New York-based Economic Security Project. “The range of scenarios go from ‘it’s overblown’ to ‘robots take over.’”
Warren sees the possibility of massive labor force disruption in the next few years as automation intensifies, resulting in waves of strikes and crackdowns on protests that, he says, could look similar to the decades of unrest and violence during the early-modern industrial era in the United States.
“It would only take one big innovation in, say, trucking, that would send a wave of panic and fury through the country,” says Warren, who leads the organization formerly known as Center for Community Change. “We can imagine worker rebellion that damages the property, the robots.”
Anmol Chaddha, research director of the Equitable Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future, says the risk is not that automation will pull the rugs out from under the labor force as a whole. The risk is that implementation will hit certain communities particularly hard, as did deindustrialization in the 1980s and 1990s, which hollowed out the rust belt and created a set of cascading political consequences that are still playing out today. Deindustrialization, Chaddha notes, replaced high-paid industrial jobs with low-paid service sector employment – and now those service sector jobs are themselves at risk of being replaced by automated processes.
“It’s almost as though the waves of automation compound those inequalities and disadvantages,” he explains.
This time around, Chaddha anticipates that lower middle-class suburbs will be hit at least as hard as urban areas. “Suburbs are the site of a lot of retail jobs, service jobs, fast-food jobs. You have a surplus labor population out there in the suburbs.”
Technological change is neither inherently good nor bad. Perhaps more to the point, it’s largely inevitable. The Luddites in England during the Industrial Revolution couldn’t stop it by smashing up machines. In the 1960s in the United States, people fleeing what they saw as the shallow materialism of modern life and hoping to set up small-scale communal farms as an alternative model largely failed to put either urbanization or agro-business trends into reverse. History is littered with examples of anti-technology movements, yet the modern economy still relies on technology and innovations that reinvent the industries that underpin economic growth.
How that technological change plays out depends on the political canvas on which it is painted. If legislators provide incentives to businesses to not fire workers in the face of automation – or tax penalties for those companies that do pare their workforces – it’s conceivable that an automation revolution won’t devastate the labor force. If, on the other hand, politicians at the state and federal levels, and judges at courts, continue to stack the deck against workers, making companies’ profit the only measure of success, then automation could prove vastly destructive.
“There’s plenty of work to be done,” says Paul, the political economist in Florida. “It’s a question of whether or not we’ll put people to work to do it. That’s political will. It’s a question of if the policymakers will step up to the plate. The role of policymakers should be to minimize economic pain from technological change.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. In July, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “Will ‘Public Charge’ Block Citizenship for Immigrants?” The United Nations cited his 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” in its 2018 report about extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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