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AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

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AFL-CIO president: Engage workers as technologies evolve

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As technology displaces workers and real wages emerge from a long period of stagnation, the future of work appears in flux. But AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka sees a way forward, detailed in a galvanizing speech on the future of work and labor Nov. 20 at MIT Sloan.

The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of independent unions worldwide, consisting of 55 national and international unions. It recently formed the AFL-CIO Commission on Work and Unions, designed to rethink the role of unions in the modern workforce.

Trumka offered a glimpse into that thinking.

The future rests with young and vocal workers who are unafraid to strike

“Sometimes it seems we’re heading toward a future where choices are made exclusively by billionaires and the future of work is determined behind closed doors, where workers are not allowed in,” Trumka said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the future for American workers, because young people in particular are tired of being silenced. We’re hungry for the connection to each other so we can impose decisions that will shape our future.”

He pointed to recent strikes and walkouts among teachers, workers at Google, autoworkers, Marriott hotel workers, and ride-sharing contractors.

“In California, the governor signed legislation into law clarifying that 1 million workers who had been misclassified as independent contractors should be given rights and protections that workers have fought for and won over years,” Trumka said, calling 2019 the biggest year of collective action in “an entire generation.”

“There’s an uprising,” he said.

Faith in democracy depends on worker buy-in

As fear spreads regarding tech’s capacity to displace workers, employee voices need to be heard — or else democracy is at risk, Trumka said.

“Working people must be in the room when decisions are made about the shape of how tech will be used in workplace,” he said, both in terms of influence but also in terms of optics. Workers feel disenfranchised, he warned, saying less than 7% of the private sector workforce belongs to a union, as inequality soars and wages stagnate.This disparity has a devastating ripple effect, particularly on millennials, Trumka said.

“Millennials equate capitalism and democracy with inequality and poverty,” he warned. “This is the group of people who spent their entire lives under the rules of globalization, the rules that brought us less health care, flat wages. … They were told, ‘Don’t worry. Get a good education. You have nothing to worry about.’ They did and came out with a mountain of debt. They couldn’t find a job, or maybe had four or five jobs.”

In order to ensure democracy’s future, Trumka said, “Working people need a real seat at the table when it comes to the design and deployment of innovation” to ensure tech advances benefit the masses.

Excluding workers can undermine productivity

Technology such as artificial intelligence is only the latest innovation in the working world; workers have adjusted and transformed in the past. "This isn’t our first rodeo. Before electricity there was steam. Times changed, and we changed with them,” Trumka said.

However, if workers aren’t given a seat at the table, tech design won’t work for them, and it won’t work for businesses. In the mining industry, for example, machines were often designed without the operator in mind, Trumka said.

“Accidents ensued and productivity suffered. Every lever on every machine did a different thing instead of being standardized,” he said. “If workers don’t have the power won through collective bargaining, businesses are likely to make short-sighted decisions about how to deploy tech, and it could destroy valuable human capital in the process.”

In the best case, he said, increased productivity could result in four-day workweeks, rising wages, and better lives.

“The instant you start treating people like an asset to be invested in rather than a cost to be cut, you start to win. Treat people like assets, and I promise you, their creativity and their hard work will be the best asset you have — and it will pay off for years to come,” he said.

Trumka’s talk was co-sponsored by the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan, the MIT Sloan Leadership and Human Capital Club, The MIT Leadership Center, and the MIT Sloan Office of the Dean.

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