Why we’re fighting for labor unions have a voice in implementing AI


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Earlier this month, Google’s co-founder admitted that the company had “definitely messed up” after its AI tool, Gemini, produced historically inaccurate images—including depictions of racially diverse Nazis. Sergey Brin cited a lack of “thorough testing” of the AI tool, but the incident is a good reminder that, despite all the hype around generative AI replacing human output, the technology still has a long way to go. 

Of course, that hasn’t stopped companies from deploying AI in the workplace. Some even use the technology as an excuse to lay workers off. Since last May, at least 4,000 people have lost their jobs to AI, and 70% of workers across the country live with the fear that AI is coming for theirs next. And while the technology may still be in its infancy, it’s developing fast. Earlier this year, AI pioneer Mustafa Suleyman said that “left completely to the market and to their own devices, [AI tools are] fundamentally labor-replacing.” Without changes now, AI could be coming to replace a lot of people’s jobs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. AI has enormous potential to build prosperity and unleash human creativity, but only if it also works for working people. Ensuring that happens requires giving the voice of workers—the people who will engage with these technologies every day, and whose lives, health, and livelihoods are increasingly affected by AI and automation—a seat at the decision-making table. 

As president of the AFL-CIO, representing 12.5 million working people across 60 unions, and CEO of Omidyar Network, a social change philanthropy that supports responsible technology, we believe that the single best movement to give everyone a voice is the labor movement. Empowering workers—from warehouse associates to software engineers—is the most powerful tactic we have to ensure that AI develops in the interests of the many, not the few. 

That’s what unions have done throughout their history: turn new technology into safe, effective innovations that improve all of our lives. The invention of electricity at the turn of the 20th century, for example, posed a threat to workers in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Electrical workers barely earned a dollar a day while facing fatality rates 50% above the national average—until they formed a union. Unions tamed electricity. Not only did they make it safe, they harnessed this new technology to expand prosperity and build the middle class, training a highly skilled workforce to illuminate America. 

Generations later, that’s what unions are ready to do in every sector of the economy. In Detroit, skilled auto workers in good union jobs are ready to design and shape the next generation of electric vehicle production. In Hollywood, writers can use AI as one tool in their toolbox to continue to create incisive, thoughtful work—instead of studios using AI as a cheap replacement for writers to turn out low-quality content. On construction sites across the country, tech companies can work with operating engineers to design new tools, like Built Robotics, which created a robotic excavator with worker support and input. 

As the power of the labor movement grows, it’s ensuring workers’ voices are heard on technology in many different ways. Sometimes, that may involve a strike, like the historic wins on technology and AI that the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and UAW fought for last year.

But there are other ways, too: Collective bargaining, where negotiated contracts create a collaborative and streamlined platform for workers’ input. There are also joint efforts from groups like the AFL-CIO Tech Institute and Omidyar Network that provide advocacy training for front-line workers and partnerships like the one the AFL-CIO recently announced with Microsoft, where for the first time in history an American tech giant formalized a commitment to labor rights—and a dialogue with workers—as it develops AI.

More partnerships and more worker power will be critical on the road ahead, especially considering the stakes. We know that AI has the potential to worsen unfair and intrusive surveillance measures employers place on their employees, and increasing worker power can serve as an effective counterweight to curb the worst harms. 

On that and so many other threats in the dawn of generative AI, the labor movement will be the one to stand up and drive change. It’s telling that even in a moment of deep polarization, 71% of Americans support unions—including a majority of Republicans and independents—and 9 out of 10 people under 30 do as well. Part of that is because, while not everyone in the workforce is a union member, the industry-wide wages, benefits, working conditions, and safeguards we fight for help all workers. Now, it’s on us to channel the powerful momentum for unions into a safer, better, fairer future for workers, for companies, and for our country.

To be clear, the labor movement is not anti-tech. It’s pro-worker. Together, we’ll work with anyone who will bring workers’ voices to the table. And we’ll hold CEOs who want to barrel recklessly forward without us accountable. Because the stakes of this transformation are massive. This isn’t just about our jobs. AI is touching our relationships, our civil rights, our democracy—every aspect of our lives.

We can usher in AI technology the easy way or the hard way. But no matter what happens, we’ll be there fighting for workers to be heard. The labor movement is determined to be at the center of this transition, and we won’t stop working to ensure collective prosperity and human dignity for the long haul. 

Liz Schuler is president of AFL-CIO and Mike Kubzansky is CEO of the Omidyar Network.


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