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Could Artificial Intelligence Reinvent Unions?
Will the development of AI cause unions to flourish or flounder? Obviously, ChatGPT has some ideas about it too.
Generative AI (short for ‘artificial intelligence’) is growing at an exponential rate causing intrigue and trepidation around the world.
From the actors and writers currently striking in Hollywood to accountants, doctors, human resource professionals, lawyers, as well as construction and fast-food workers, it appears that is becoming harder to imagine any sector of the economy that will not be impacted in some way.
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Whether AI is used to enhance productivity of current jobs (and thereby reduce the number of workers needed), or used to displacing entire occupations, the possibilities and potential ramifications are endless.
Last month, McKinsey & Co. released a headline-grabbing study indicating that, by 2030, “up to 30 percent of hours currently worked across the US economy could be automated—a trend accelerated by generative AI” and an “additional 12 million occupational transitions may be needed by 2030.”
In March, Goldman Sachs estimated that, globally, “generative AI could expose the equivalent of 300mn full-time jobs to automation.”
Could AI be used to reimagine the labor union model?
There is little doubt that, as in Hollywood (and elsewhere), union members’ jobs are at risk from AI and, as union members’ jobs disappear, this poses a risk to the current union union model, as well as an opportunity to rethink unions’ traditional structures.
At its core, the labor union business model is about helping workers on the job. In order to do that, unions charge workers union dues—often in the hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.
As a service-type of business, unions’ primary roles are:
Negotiation of labor contracts—Unions provide a negotiating service for their members which will sometimes result in a contract governing the wages, hours of work and other terms and conditions of employment. Negotiators are often employed by national unions and deployed to conduct on behalf of, or assist local unions in the negotiation of initial or successor contracts.
Administration of contracts—If a contract is in place, it is often the local union officers and their union steward who are responsible for the day-to-day administration of the contract. If, for example, an employer does not follow the contract, or a union member is fired, it is the local union’s responsibility to investigate and, where necessary, file a grievance in the hopes of resolving the dispute.
Lobbying for public policy—Whether it is on issues of safety in the workplace, or increasing taxes, unions at the local and national levels lobby local, state and national politicians on public policy issues.
Politics—Unions are often involved in political elections. Union involvement can include voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, as well as donations to specific political candidates.
The Union Structure
In fulfilling a union’s primary purpose, the union structure—from bottom up—consists of rank and file members who pay union dues to a union local which usually employs union representatives, officers and paid staff (usually administrative). The local union, in turn, pays a parent union—often called an “international”—a percentage of members’ dues in the form of a “per capita tax.” Like a local union, the parent union also has officers and paid staff, often numbering in the hundreds.
In many cases, the per capita tax charged by a national union to a local union will range from 40 percent to 60 percent of the dues paid by union members. In other words, a local union may only be able to retain between 40 and 60 percent of the dues its members pay the union.
What’s in the union’s payroll?
Union dues are used to pay a union’s expenses. Often, when people look at unions’ financial returns—especially national unions—they are shocked by the amount of people employed and amounts of salaries paid for the types of positions that unions employ.
Many of the jobs held within national unions’ headquarters are already those most prone to displacement by generative AI. Those positions include: accountants, administrative assistants, research assistants, and even some union organizing positions.
While unions may, at first, be loathe to replace positions with automation like AI, in many respects, they’ve done it before as the world transitioned from typewriters to computers and from hard files of data to the internet and cloud computing.
As AI develops, it is entirely possible to reduce the need for many superfluous or “redundant” positions at the local and national levels while still maintaining a high degree of service to members.
Re-imagining a more member-centric union model
Though it is not there yet, within a few years, generative AI may be to the point where the entire union model can be reformed to make it easier to negotiate contracts, less costly to members, as well as more responsive in the settlement of on-the-job disputes (i.e. grievances).
AI as second chair. While initial and successor contract negotiations may continue to be handled through mainly through humans as primary negotiators, it is entirely possible for in the not-too-distant future wherein AI can be used as a resource during negotiations to help in the costing of contracts, labor market data, as well as language comparisons, freeing up research and data collection resources.
AI as an arbiter. Often, from grievance to resolution (settlement or arbitration), grievance procedures can take weeks or months (and sometimes even longer if an arbitrator is involved) to resolve issues in the workplace. AI may serve as a tool to drastically reduce that time to a matter of days or even shorter.
Usually, grievances involve one of two things:
Interpretation of a contract’s language, article or clause, and;
Employee discipline (up to and including termination)
While unions may, on occasion, file grievances to “push the envelope” (to expand the interpretation of contractual language), most grievances—even those involving employee discipline—have the potential to be resolved almost immediately through AI.
If AI develops with the ability to interpret language in a legal manner, for example, it may be possible to upload contracts and utilize AI to determine if a particular contract clause has been violated, and whether the grievance has merit or not.
In cases of employee discipline (up to including termination), it may possible for AI to determine whether the employer utilized the Principles of Just Cause Discipline, as AI examining and interpreting the language of the CBA, prior arbitration cases and/or awards.
This would save both unions and employers hours and expenses in the actual grievance process and, perhaps, even the costs of an arbitrator.
It should also be noted that the filing of grievances is often a subjective process.
There is no actual legal requirement for unions to file members’ grievances if they do not think the grievances have merit.
This is why unions are sometimes accused of unfair labor practice charges for “failure to represent” unsatisfied members.
For example, the Teamsters constitution specifically states:
“Every member covered by a collective bargaining agreement at their place of employment authorizes the Local Union to act as his or her exclusive bargaining representative with full and exclusive power to execute agreements with the employer governing terms and conditions of employment and to act for him or her and have final authority in presenting, processing, and adjusting any grievance, difficulty, or dispute arising under any collective bargaining agreement or out of their employment with such employer in such manner as the Local Union or its officers deem to be in the best interests of the Local Union, all subject to Article XII and other applicable provisions of the International Constitution relating to such matters. The Local Union and its officers, business representatives, and agents may decline to process any grievance, complaint, difficulty, or dispute if in their reasonable judgment such grievance, complaint, or dispute lacks merit.” [p. 119, emphasis added.]
If AI is developed to enable unionized workers to file their own grievances and have them heard—which is currently legal for unionized workers to do under federal law—it could save time and money for unions, as well as negate their ability to refuse to process grievances and risk the filing of unfair labor practices.
The utilization of AI to build truly independent unions
Over the last few years, there has been some attention paid to the so-called rise of independent unions.
“More than 24,000 workers joined unions outside the direct reach of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation, which includes 60 unions representing more than 12 million workers,” reported Bloomberg earlier in the year. “This organizing was also separate from wins notched by major non-AFL-CIO unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.”
While some of the organizing by so-called “independent unions” was truly independent, in many cases, major unions have helped the independent unions by backing them with resources.
However, for workers who do not wish to be affiliated with a major union, the development of AI might be a perfect tool for a truly independent union—from the organizing, to the negotiation, as well as the contract administration.
Additionally, as AI develops to assume more of a union role, it may obviate the need for unions (as they exist today) entirely as well as make the payment of union dues completely voluntary or user based.
This would go a long way toward fulfilling Samuel Gompers’ vision of voluntary unionism, as opposed to compulsory unionism, when he stated:
“I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty — the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion.”
What does AI think about AI and unions?
In positing this idea, it was worth exploring what AI would say about artificial intelligence involvement in labor unions.
As a result, when given the prompt “Write an article about how artificial intelligence could replace a labor union,” here is the response that ChatGPT gave:
[All of the content below was written by ChatGPT.']
Title: Embracing Artificial Intelligence: An Opportunity to Rethink Labor Unions
In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been rapidly transforming industries, revolutionizing the way we work, communicate, and live. From self-driving cars to virtual assistants, AI technologies have become an integral part of our daily lives. As the ongoing debate on the future of labor unions continues, it is worth exploring the possibilities of how AI could potentially replace traditional labor union structures. While some may fear the displacement of workers and the erosion of rights, there are compelling arguments that suggest AI could actually enhance workplace conditions, empower individuals, and reshape the concepts of collective bargaining and worker representation.
Improved workplace efficiency and fairness:
One major advantage of integrating AI into workplaces is its ability to streamline and optimize operations. By automating repetitive, manual tasks, AI liberates human workers to focus on creative and complex problem-solving. This shift can lead to greater job satisfaction and more fulfilling roles. Moreover, AI algorithms could provide unbiased performance evaluations, eliminate favoritism or discrimination, and ensure a fair system of rewards and promotions.
Autonomous negotiation and collective bargaining:
Traditional labor unions have historically played a pivotal role in negotiating working conditions, wages, and benefits. Imagine a future where AI platforms act as independent negotiators, capable of analyzing vast amounts of data, impartially representing the interests of workers, and efficiently reaching mutually beneficial agreements with employers. By removing the element of human emotions and biases, AI-enabled negotiations could potentially lead to more objective and optimal outcomes for all parties involved.
Empowering individual workers:
Labor union membership suggests collective representation, voice, and power. However, some workers may feel overshadowed, silenced, or restricted by union decisions that might not necessarily align with their interests. In contrast, AI-driven systems could empower each individual worker, allowing them to customize their employment terms, benefits packages, and work arrangements. AI could offer personalized assistance and guidance to employees, helping them navigate complex labor laws, workplace disputes, and career development opportunities.
Enhancing worker safety and well-being:
AI technologies have immense potential to improve worker safety measures and reduce work-related injuries. From intelligent robots to augmented reality (AR) safety systems, AI can be deployed to assess risks, automate hazardous tasks, and provide real-time monitoring for potential dangers in the workplace. Improved occupational safety not only preserves workers' health but also reduces the need for industrial disputes centered around workplace conditions, benefitting both employees and employers.
Transitioning to a skills-centric society:
As AI begins to replace routine tasks, workers' career paths will undergo significant transformations. This necessitates a shift towards skills development and lifelong learning. By leveraging AI-powered training tools, workers can adapt to the changing needs of the job market, reskill themselves, and confidently navigate career transitions. AI can help eradicate information asymmetry, providing workers with real-time labor market insights, identifying skills in demand, and recommending educational resources to upgrade their skills accordingly.
The advent of artificial intelligence presents an opportunity for society to reimagine traditional labor unions, adapting them to the changing workforce paradigm. Rather than resisting change, embracing AI as a catalyst for a more equitable, efficient, and worker-centric future could prove advantageous. While some concerns about job displacement and workers' rights are valid, harnessing AI's potential can lead to personalized representation, fair negotiations, and improved workplace conditions. By proactively integrating AI technologies in worker-employer relationships, we can create a future where individuals are empowered, unions are enhanced, and the collective well-being of workers is preserved.
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