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NEXT: Will Autonomous Technology Spur a Revival of Unionism?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Will Autonomous Technology Spur a Revival of Unionism?Photo via Smart Columbus.
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Columbus is a test site for autonomous vehicles, and we’ll soon learn about how they will move about the city, how they will interact with pedestrians and bicycles and scooters, and how they will alter mobility patterns. But Columbus might also become the first site for the clash of interests between autonomous intelligence and human workers.

Recently, Smart Columbus announced that there would be a driverless shuttle that would service a small route in the Downtown area, around COSI and the National Veterans Museum & Memorial and Bicentennial Park.

Almost immediately after the announcement, Transport Workers Union Local 208, the union representing COTA bus drivers, announced a campaign aimed at protesting the safety concerns and the loss of jobs driverless fleet vehicles represent. John Samuelsen, president of the union, proclaimed that, “These jobs are ours.”

I wrote before that the job-eliminating threat posed by autonomous intelligence could ignite a new wave of Luddism. Remember that the Luddites were craft weavers whose jobs were displaced by the mechanical looms that made up the first wave of industrialization in Britain. The Luddites travelled from factory to factory smashing up the machines, these threats to their livelihoods. Their acts of sabotage were criminalized.

Trade unions were another response to industrialization, and in England the activities of trade unions were deemed illegal, decriminalized only in the 1860s. It is interesting to observe that these organizations of workers were formed in response to the job-threatening effects of technology. If artificial intelligence threatens to replace a large number of human employees, will we witness a revival of unionism as a response? Are the actions of the Transport Workers a harbinger of what is to come?

At present, that prospect looks quite unlikely. Union membership has been in steady decline in the U.S. since the 1980s, although union participation in the public sector has remained steady over that time.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 that an individual public sector employee no longer must be compelled to pay union dues even if the employee benefits from the collective bargaining power the union represents. Observers see this as a death blow to public-sector unions, and one more example of how unions — already dwindling in popularity — are being slowly legislated out of existence.

Technology-replacing-jobs has been a recurring refrain since the early Industrial Revolution. The counterargument has always been that, while technology might replace some jobs, there will be new jobs that emerge in their place, and workers need only retrain and retool. Some observers note that artificial intelligence is different: that as technology is taking over more jobs that were thought to be strictly human, there will be fewer and fewer jobs left for humans.

Historian Yoval Noah Harari predicts the rise of a “useless class.” When machines are the sole source of cheap, reliable labor, what emerges is a large class of people who are no longer productive, a class of the economically useless. “By 2050, a useless class might emerge, the result not only of a shortage of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also of insufficient mental stamina to continue learning new skills.”

Will growing numbers of displaced “useless” workers organize into unions or other groups as the only way to fight back against automation?

How will workers displaced by artificial intelligence respond? Like Luddite saboteurs? By forming and rejoining unions as a way to push back against encroaching technological displacement? Or will such organized resistance be made illegal and thus ineffective?

A quiet shuttle ride through the Columbus Downtown might offer clues.

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, Oct. 19 at 8:30 a.m. at Wells Barn at Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. Matthew Heaggans will speak on the theme “Honesty.”

The next Columbus Futurists salon will be Thursday, Oct. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.). Our question for the evening will be “What three skills are individuals going to need to succeed in the workforce of the future?”

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