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I completely agree with Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin that it is time to put workers’ voices and interests at the center of debates about how to shape the future of work. In place of wild predictions about numbers—how many jobs might be eliminated or created by the next wave of innovation in technology—we need more discussion of quality: what needs to be done to create better work, a more inclusive society, and more broadly shared prosperity. That discussion won’t happen unless workers and their representatives are engaged in the design and implementation of technologies. And workers won’t get a meaningful voice in these decisions without increasing their power within firms and in political affairs.
But I think the authors are too quick to pass over the details: how exactly to do this. We should not cede control over the future of work to those the authors call the “architects of inequality,” who seek to use technology to serve the interests of capital. Instead we need to put forward a clear workplace and public policy strategy for using technology to solve critical societal problems; to augment work, not just replace workers; to prepare the workforce for work of the future; and to support those whose jobs are displaced. To achieve that goal I would urge labor—broadly defined, including existing unions and the growing array of worker advocacy organizations, among them those the authors profile in the movement to “bargain for the common good”—to build a robust technology component into their efforts. Any such strategy will involve at least four central elements.
First, we must ask basic questions about what problems technology can help solve. Consider the race to build driverless cars. All the auto companies and a host of Silicon Valley firms are competing to be the first to perfect this technology. But why should this be goal? Why not redefine the objective of developing technologies to be a safer, more efficient, and more accessible transportation system? This won’t happen unless a broader set of stakeholders gain a voice in defining the problems technology is asked to help solve. We must not cede the definition of the problems to the techno-capitalists, whose lone goal is profit.
Second, to foster that sort of discussion, we need to make organizational changes that will integrate technology and work design processes. In the dominant approach used in industry today, employers and technology vendors first make the critical choices on what technologies to purchase and implement and then consider whether the workforce has the skills needed to make the technology pay off. Changing this process to give workers a more direct and early voice in these decisions will require confronting a legal firewall that makes design decisions the sole purview of employers, requiring them to bargain with unions and the workforce only over the impacts of these decisions on wages, hours, or working conditions. The union UNITE-HERE overcame that restriction in bargaining with the giant hotel chains in Las Vegas and via long strikes at Marriott this past year, but turning their successes from the exception to the rule will require eliminating the distinction between “mandatory” and “non-mandatory” requirements in labor law.
A third essential element of a proactive, worker-centered technology strategy is to ensure the workforce of the future has the skills needed to work with technology. Most groups studying the current wave of technological change argue for retraining the workforce as needed. But waiting until new technology is at the workplace door is too late. Instead, the workforce needs to have the technical and behavioral skills beforehand so everyone is ready to engage and participate in the technological changes when they occur. This will require turning the rhetoric about “life-long learning” into reality by expanding, updating, and opening up apprenticeships to new labor force entrants and expanding training programs for workers throughout their careers that are negotiated and jointly administered by unions or other worker representatives. To date, most of these joint programs have been negotiated at the firm level. But why not take these to the regional and sectoral levels of the economy and make access to training for all a centerpiece of what unions do to prepare the workforce for the work of the future? This would be a good opportunity for labor to follow the authors’ call to link bargaining and community-based strategies and to work with multiple community-level stakeholders and institutions.
Finally, labor needs to advocate for a massive expansion of private and government labor market adjustment and income support policies. New technology will displace some workers and jobs. To avoid creating another generation of winners and losers in the economy, labor needs to negotiate and help administer expanded severance, early retirement, job search, and retraining programs with employers and champion government-funded programs such as wage insurance and other income and benefit supplements for those who experience long-term losses.
There is an elephant in labor’s room the authors hint at but don’t confront head on: the need for union leaders to work in coalition with worker advocacy groups that don’t view collective bargaining, at least as currently practiced, as their ultimate goal. It will be a terrible missed opportunity if these two groups see each other as rivals rather than coalition partners.
For one thing, there is no generic form of worker voice and representation that fits all in the workforce today. And recent findings from MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research illustrate why a coalition of unions and other worker advocates is not only theoretically important, but also practically viable. Interest in joining a union is now at the highest it has been since the 1970s. Our 2017 national survey found that, if given the opportunity to do so, 48 percent of nonunion workers would vote for union representation, compared to about only 33 percent in the 1970s and 1990s. At the same time, interest in alternative forms of representation is also widespread. A follow-up 2018 survey found strong interest in three types of organizations: those that provide collective bargaining; those that provide a range of individual services such as health care and retirement programs, job search and training; and those that provide a voice in organizational decision making from workplace participation processes and organization wide committees/councils, to representation on corporate boards. Encouragingly, the highest ratings were obtained by organizations that would provide a combination of all three sorts of worker advocacy. The moral is that collective bargaining is not dead, nor is it likely to be the only model for restoring worker voice and power.
These findings also suggest that Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin are right that labor law “will not save us.” Changing the law is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to support and sustain efforts to rebuild worker voice and power. On the other hand, it is important that we not neglect what the law can do. Implementing what workers are telling us they want and need will take fundamental—not just incremental—changes in labor and employment policies, and these in turn require a vision for the future that can capture broad-based public support. Labor and worker advocates need to work in coalition to produce a narrative the public endorses both for fixing the problems with existing law governing collective bargaining and for opening the law up—to allow for works councils and worker representation on corporate boards, to give protection under labor and employment laws to those now excluded such as independent contractors and domestic workers, and to encourage further experimentation with new ways to restore democracy at work and in society.
Thomas Kochan is the Co-Director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research and the George M. Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the co-author of Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract.
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