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IT Workers Can Navigate AI’s Evolution Through Collective Action

December 7, 2023

At a Glance

IT workers can work collaboratively with automation. However, they must have access to training and a voice in how AI and digital technologies are implemented within their profession and workplaces.

Jane McDonald Senior Advisor to the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute
Practices & Centers

The ever-expanding use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other automated digital systems in today’s workplaces—both in-person and remote—has created new opportunities and challenges for all workers, and especially IT professionals.  

The use of technology to communicate and get work done expanded during the pivot to remote work at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and adoption of AI tools in particular has exploded since the release of generative AI tools like OpenAI’s Dall-E2 and ChatGPT-3 

Because they will be responsible for deploying new systems as technology evolves, IT pros and people who are considering careers in information technology must have access to education and training that helps them understand how the systems they design will affect their colleagues’ day-to-day work—and opportunities for career advancement. They will also need to learn how to make their voices heard in conversations with employers about how systems will be designed and how people’s jobs will change as a result of new deployments.  

Training for the IT Jobs of the Future

Jobs for the Future (JFF) has partnered with the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute (WAI) to offer training that can help future IT professionals prepare for these new and increasingly complex responsibilities.  

Known as the Rapid IT Training & Employment Initiative (RITEI), the program will offer IT training to 1,800 people who are unemployed or underemployed. With employment in IT occupations expected to grow 15% nationwide from 2021 to 2031, RITEI will help fill an important need for skills in the IT labor market. And with WAI’s support, the program will also offer future IT workers education about their right to collectively bargain and form or join unions, empowering them to fully engage in conversations and decisions about the role digital technologies—especially AI—will play in the jobs of the future. 

A Need for Guardrails

AI and other digital technologies are evolving rapidly and are often implemented in workplaces without regulatory parameters or other guardrails that protect the dignity of work, worker rights, and privacy. And AI is expected to rapidly proliferate throughout workplaces over the next few years: In a recent forecast, IT market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) predicted that spending on generative AI systems and related infrastructure hardware and services would grow from nearly $16 billion in 2023 to $143 billion in 2027. 

And in an October 2017 research brief about AI, CompTIA, a leading provider of vendor-neutral IT certifications, acknowledged that “in many cases, applications and IT components that companies already have in place will gain AI capabilities through upgrades, or new purchases focused on a business goal will have the added benefit of an AI underpinning.”  

That growth will likely include the emergence and scaling of tools that can, among other things, handle IT tasks like writing code, producing documentation, and providing automated summaries or explanations. There will also be new tools that can monitor and manage worker productivity.  

Unions can offer support to workers to ensure that rapidly expanding use of AI will augment and enhance their work, rather than reducing employment opportunities and/or earning potential by reducing the level of expertise people need to do jobs that once required advanced skills.

Making the Most of AI

Of course, AI can benefit IT workers and others in a number of ways. For example, it has immense capacity to analyze datasets, and it can automate routine tasks like data entry, network monitoring, and software testing, freeing workers to dedicate more time to more engaging tasks. However, to ensure that they’re empowered to take full advantage of AI’s capacity to enhance their ability to do their jobs, workers will need to build new skills through workforce training programs and they must be able to collectively bargain to ensure that certain jobs aren’t completely eliminated by automated systems.  

To remain competitive in a rapidly evolving technological landscape, workers will need access not only to training opportunities but also to professional networks that provide them with the capacity to reflect and respond to real-time advances in AI. In particular, they will need access to opportunities to build AI literacy that provides a foundational knowledge of AI that helps them understand how to best make use of AI within specific roles.  

For IT professionals, industry-aligned training programs like RITEI can help learners build the in-demand skills that put them on pathways to quality jobs in specialized professions, such as data scientist and machine learning engineer.  

Workers understand that AI will transform industries. According to a recent Morning Consult poll commissioned by JFF, “more than half of adults believe they need to gain new skills to prepare for the impacts of artificial intelligence.”  

Through collective bargaining, labor unions can negotiate strong guardrails to protect workers from the disruptive capacity of AI. Examples include the deal the Teamsters negotiated with UPS and the pact between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Unions can also work with employers to identify and invest in training programs like RITEI that enable workers and organizations to make the most of AI’s positive potential and build equitable pipelines into AI-impacted roles.  

The emergence of Dall-E2 and ChatGPT-3 and other generative AI tools spurred unprecedented public interest in artificial intelligence and widened the impact AI could have on the workplace. Trained on large quantities of data, generative AI systems are capable of creating new content and could have a disruptive impact on white-collar professions in content-driven industries—a segment of the workforce that once seemed insulated from job losses caused by advances in automation.

Uncertain Landscape

The newness of generative AI combined with its ability to rapidly improve computational power and processing, and its exponential growth make it difficult to predict exactly how it will impact the workforce. Early studies suggest that while some jobs may disappear as AI advances, many more will be transformed by generative AI tools.  

As the landscape evolves, IT workers will need foundational knowledge of generative AI so they can shape deployments of new technologies to ensure that they benefit workers and enhance productivity without threatening jobs. To make that possible, programs like RITEI can continue partnering with unions to help early and mid-career IT workers understand their rights as they navigate the new digital landscape.  

And it will be especially important for all workers to have opportunities to engage in lifelong learning to keep their skills up to date. Effective options include work-based learning programs and short-term training programs leading to industry-recognized credentials that can be stacked as participants pursue additional training and gain increasingly advanced skills. It’s also important for training providers to offer supportive services that enable workers to focus on learning even as they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and at home. 

While generative AI has captured the public imagination, it’s not the first digitally automated technology to disrupt businesses and the workforce. For example, organizations have for years been using predictive AI technologies—AI models that infer information about different data points to draw conclusions—to automate tasks and track productivity. Early implementations of predictive AI have had major impacts on many workers and businesses—primarily low-paying industries that employ mostly of Black, Latine, and Indigenous workers, women of all backgrounds, and immigrants in frontline jobs.

White House Action, Union Support

Thus far, comprehensive federal regulations to protect the rights and ensure the safety of people in industries impacted by AI lack specificity and enforceability. However, in October 2023, President Joe Biden sought to change that when he issued the Executive Order on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence, which, among other things, mitigates AI-driven workplace risks such as job displacement and surveillance by supporting workers’ ability to bargain collectively and promoting investments in training and development opportunities that are accessible to all. In signing the order, Biden acknowledged that “we still need Congress to act” on enforceable and accountable AI regulation.  

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler praised the executive order, saying, “The AFL-CIO applauds the centrality of workers’ rights and values within this order—including the right to collectively bargain—while acknowledging there is much ground to cover in enshrining accountability, transparency and safety as bedrocks of AI. . . . The labor movement stands ready to partner in building comprehensive strategies and accessible programs to ensure working people reap the benefits of AI innovation.”

‘Adjunct Managers’ 

Working people can benefit from union representation in negotiations on how technology is deployed, developed, and implemented. To better understand the role unions can play in improving worker engagement with AI, let’s examine the use of AI in call centers.  

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of AI and other digital technologies in call centers as many companies closed traditional in-person facilities and had employees do the work from home. AI now plays two important roles in these remote call center setups and has often been deployed without workers’ consent. 

First, AI systems like chatbots and virtual agents are now providing automated customer support, routing calls, and performing other tasks previously handled by experienced staffers who had to develop new skills to move into roles with added responsibilities. When a company displaces workers by deploying AI tools without workers’ feedback or consent, the people whose responsibilities are taken over by AI may be demoralized because they’re left with fewer career options and less agency.  

Second, employers are using AI as a monitoring and assessment tool, and these types of deployments have the potential to infringe on worker privacy and perpetuate bias. As call center workers moved out of office spaces—and away from their managers—and into their homes, their employers increased their use of surveillance technologies and monitoring systems for both remote workers and those still in offices, and the tools often used ambiguous metrics and goals to measure productivity.  

A New York Times article describing the use of AI monitoring tools at a MetLife call center in Rhode Island described AI as a kind of “adjunct manager” that monitored employees and determined if they talked too quickly, sounded sufficiently energetic, and conveyed empathy during interactions with customers. Such systems of appraisal raise concerns about lack of worker privacy and perpetuation of racial and gender biases. Determining how algorithms reach their conclusions can be difficult, opening the possibility that assessments of worker performance are inaccurate. For example, independent evaluations have shown that AI-based speech recognition tools perform worse for people of color and women of all backgrounds than they do for white men, increasing the likelihood that monitoring tools that use speech recognition technology offer inaccurate performance assessments for those workers. 

Bias isn’t necessarily an inevitable outcome of AI. But AI systems can reinforce or replicate biases that have influenced personnel decisions in the past when they’re trained on data samples that don’t reflect the true demographic makeup of the workforce and have limited representation of certain populations, including people of color, women of all backgrounds, workers from low-income backgrounds, and people who are learning English. When those demographic groups are left out of AI’s data samplings, AI fails to account for the diversity of our world. This can be a problem with speech recognition systems, for example, because AI trained exclusively on speech samples of white people may misinterpret or misunderstand the speech patterns, vernacular usages, dialects, and accents of members of other populations.  

At some organizations, AI systems may even have the power to hire and fire workers. To avoid the possibility that these systems would make personnel decisions without any human intervention, U.S. Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Brian Schatz of Hawai‘i introduced a bill called the No Robot Bosses Act of 2023 to curb the rise of AI-driven decision-making systems. The AFL-CIO and its affiliate the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents unionized call center workers, both endorse the No Robot Bosses Act.  

Labor unions have the power to use contract negotiations with employers to set parameters around when and how workers engage with AI systems, and they’re invested in advocating for federal AI protections.  

For example, the New York Times article cited earlier told the story of call center workers who broadly experienced adverse outcomes from the nonconsensual implementations of AI-driven performance monitoring tools and automated systems in their workplaces. Unions can advocate on behalf of workers for better working conditions in situations like that. According to a 2022 study facilitated by Cornell University, call center workers represented by unions reported lower stress levels than their nonunion counterparts. Moreover, call center workers represented by a union reported that their union helped address scheduling predictability, fairness of performance monitoring, and training quality and quantity. 

Including workers in decisions about implementations of AI and other automated tools will do more than reduce the potential risks associated with new technologies; worker input could also lead to increased productivity because when labor and management work together, they can come up with practical plans for using technology to help people work more efficiently.

Enhancing Human Ingenuity

Unions offer the most effective means of facilitating negotiations around the design and implementation of AI systems. They can also provide tangible support for workers in all industries. That’s why IT training programs like RITEI must include information about how IT workers can exercise their rights to join unions and use the collective bargaining process to ensure that they have a seat at the table when employers make decisions about technology deployments. WAI is proud to offer instruction on those issues to RITEI learners in partnership with JFF.  

When implemented with workers’ well-being and efficacy in mind, digital technology can enhance human ingenuity. Unions can help all workers adapt and thrive in an evolving landscape where AI is playing an increasingly prominent role in tasks once carried out by humans. This is evident in the WGA’s hard-won contract with the AMPTP, which includes guardrails on the use of AI in film and television projects.  

That contract is just one example of how unions can use collective bargaining to establish guidelines and standards to ensure that AI deployments are human-centered and are designed to support workers and create more bandwidth for human ingenuity.  

RITEI graduates will develop the skills they need to collaborate with managers through collective action and advocate for safe, fair, and effective working conditions in workplaces increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence.