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Can unionizing help today’s white-collar workers save their jobs from AI?

Jong-Hee Han, co-vice chairman, CEO and head of the DX (Device eXperience) Division for Samsung Electronics, speaks about artificial intelligence during a Samsung Electronics press conference at CES 2024, an annual consumer electronics trade show, in Las Vegas Jan. 8, 2024. (OSV News photo/Steve Marcus, Reuters)

(OSV News) — During America’s “hot labor summer” of 2023 — when approximately 300,000 workers staged nationwide work stoppages — commentators praised a great leveling of the labor hierarchy.

There were the strikes and surprising gains of traditionally manual trades: auto workers; delivery drivers and warehouse employees; hospitality and hotel staff. But other wage earners also were marching the picket lines: health care and call center workers; Hollywood actors and writers; journalists; teachers and school aides.

If unionization is a guarantor of job security and bargaining power, then surely office and “knowledge” workers — just like their “blue-collar” counterparts — gained a fresh recognition of its value, and accordingly organized in greater numbers against the labor trend a May 2023 Wall Street Journal headline referred to as “the disappearing white-collar job”?

Yes and no — and as The Wall Street Journal further explained, “A once-in-a-generation convergence of technology and pressure to operate more efficiently has corporations saying many lost jobs may never return.”

According to January data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — was 10.0% in 2023, little changed from the previous year.” The bureau also noted, “Unionization rates were lowest in … management occupations (4.1 percent).”

“I am not sure if white-collar professional managerial class people will always take inspiration from heroic displays of solidarity among blue-collar workers,” said John Trumpbour, research director at Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy and an executive committee member of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice.

“But over at Microsoft, some highly compensated white-collar workers seem to have admired the organizing of lowly paid testers for the vast gaming industry,” Trumpbour told OSV News. “Microsoft has agreed to a version of card-check neutrality and has not pursued the usual corporate ruse of making life difficult for workers seeking to organize the workplace.”

Through a “card check,” employees can organize by signing authorization forms — or “cards” — stating they want union representation.

The Alphabet Workers Union — also referred to as the Google Union — was founded in January 2021. “Google’s motto used to be ‘Don’t Be Evil’ — we are working to make sure they live up to that and more,” Alphabet Workers asserts on its website. Recent campaigns have centered on artificial intelligence (AI), employment classifications, pay standards and parity, and more.

“Over the past few years, highly paid white-collar workers have begun to assert themselves far beyond Google, engaging in forms of collective action that resemble union organizing,” explained Trumpbour. “Corporate employees have protested what they see as overly strict return-to-office policies at companies like Apple and Starbucks, and over a variety of social issues, like their employers’ carbon footprint (Amazon) or lack of diversity (Nike).”

Still, the list of layoffs has been lengthy.

In 2023, it included Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Salesforce, 3M, Boeing, Dell, Disney, Goldman Sachs, Capital One, IBM, SAP, Paypal, Wayfair and Yahoo, among others.

Each planned to trim their workforce by thousands of employees — often citing reasons of efficiency — with few sectors seemingly immune.

In 2024, cuts are expected to be smaller — but still include corporate household names such as Tesla, Google, Amazon and UPS.

“Streamlining” is a word often heard in statements from executives announcing lost jobs.

“A lot of U.S. corporations have grown quite fat, in bureaucratic terms, over the last 10-15 years,” said Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Catholic Research Economists Discussion Organization, or CREDO.

AI is increasingly, Fernández-Villaverde observed, regarded as a way to trim that corporate “fat.”

“Imagine we rate everyone in society, in terms of skills — 0 is the person that has the lowest skills, and 100 is the person that has the most skills,” Fernández-Villaverde explained. “Artificial intelligence will be good for people who are between 0-75, because artificial intelligence cannot really substitute for a cleaning person. Still someone has to clean a bathroom; still someone has to put a brick in a construction site.”

“Artificial intelligence will also be great for people at the top 5% of abilities and skills,” Fernández-Villaverde told OSV News, “because Artificial intelligence means that now they have ways to do a lot of things in way more powerful approaches than before.”

“Where ChatGPT and artificial intelligence more in general is terrible,” said Fernández-Villaverde, “is for people between 75%-95% of the distribution: people who do things that are sophisticated — but not too sophisticated.”

“A lot of the supervision at the middle level within firms, I can substitute it with artificial intelligence,” said Fernández-Villaverde. “That’s creating the need within firms to reorganize the way in which they organize their middle management — and firms are just reacting to it.”

On March 26, the American business journal, Inc., confirmed that trend, reporting a survey by among 3,000 managers: 41% thought they could replace employees with “cheaper AI tools” in 2024; another 40% believe AI tools can replace team members without an impact on their operations; and 48% of managers said their business could save greatly on payroll costs if a “large number” of employees are replaced by AI in 2024.

“The technology has changed, and I think a lot of people in middle-range positions need to understand there is very little you can do about that,” emphasized Fernández-Villaverde. “Trying to deny the reality that artificial intelligence is completely transforming our business models is not good for anyone.”

Such labor evolution, Fernández-Villaverde said, isn’t new.

“In the U.S., around 98% of people used to work in agriculture — now, only 1% of people work in agriculture. We just don’t need 20% doing the middle range of jobs in the U.S. anymore,” he said, adding, “We need to think about what can we do for these people to transition into well-paid jobs.”

“Technological disruption often creates losers as well as winners,” Trumpbour noted. “The trouble in the current economic order is that typically so many of the winners are a privileged elite at the apex of corporate power. It is interesting that more high-tech gurus and captains of industry openly admit that there will be what Mustafa Suleyman (CEO of Microsoft AI) calls a ‘serious number of losers.'”

While that may seem inevitable, “we had better make sure there are better human guidelines for control of advanced technology, as sometimes the survival of communities may depend on establishing oversight,” cautioned Trumpbour. “There are many work situations in which humanitarian values must trump the cult of efficiency.”

The Catholic Church’s teaching and defense of unions might provide such a tool to protect workers, families and their communities from an unchallenged “cult of efficiency” marching its way through society.

“I call union rights ‘the forgotten civil right,'” Dan Bowling, former head of human resources for Coca-Cola, and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University’s Law School, told OSV News.

The right to unionize and seek workplace equity — and to strike, if necessary — is fundamental to Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII, St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all expounded on unionized labor topics, in both official and unofficial pronouncements.

“My labor law classes are full,” reported Bowling. “It used to be, nobody wanted to take labor law. But it’s more relevant when you have Starbucks workers wearing union buttons; graduate students are organizing unions, striking at some schools; and tenured faculties are organizing.”

Union membership, Bowling said, isn’t “a blue-collar phenomenon anymore. It crosses any sort of economic boundaries.”

Nonetheless, there are challenges to unionizing in the office versus on the assembly line.

“A lot of the white-collar type that may be pro-union — more socially justice-oriented — are spread out; they’re knowledge workers; they do a lot of part-time gigs; work for a variety of places,” explained Bowling. “The most successful unionization (model) is to have a highly concentrated group of workers in one place, or two places.”

Public visibility — an important ingredient of union leverage — is another factor.

“Does it make headlines if you organize nine emergency room physicians, against 900 plant workers at an Amazon warehouse?” asked Bowling.

Still, some traditional barriers to unionization have begun to fall.

“When a student grows up — and has been taught by a person who is in a union — and they say, ‘No classes next week; we’re on strike,’ they’re going to pay attention. Or the Starbucks worker has a button saying, ‘Vote Union.’ That has cleared the way; there’s an acceptability among this group of white-collar workers,” suggested Bowling. “So white-collar unions are becoming much more common — the sort of stigma attached to them is long gone.”

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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