Speech | Future of Work

Trumka on Future of Work: We Have to Get This Right

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at a transatlantic conference with the German labor movement on the future of work: 

Good morning. Thank you all for being here today. Brother Reiner (Hoffman), I appreciate your partnership and your leadership. We have a lot to learn from each other. 

Just a few weeks ago, the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions issued our final report. It was the product of nearly two years of exhaustive study, debate and analysis. 

At the back of the report you will find the proceedings of our commision, which included a very productive meeting with Reiner and our German trade union partners. Your process and your own report greatly helped guide our efforts. 

As our commission performed its work, it was clear that a generation of rigged economic rules and anti-worker attacks had awakened the incredible passion and power of collective action. Something is happening in America. Today is the 18th day of a strike at General Motors, where 50,000 UAW members walked off the job to demand that if workers share in the sacrifice, we should also share in the profits. In California, after a heated debate and the full-scale opposition of Uber and Lyft, the governor signed legislation clarifying that over a million workers who had been misclassified as independent contractors are really employees and should be given all the rights and protections that workers have fought for and won over the years. 

Working people across industries and demographics are joining together for a better life. Union approval is at 64 percent, the highest in nearly 50 years. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation. MIT found that more than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance. This uprising comes as the astounding technologies of the digital revolution have the potential to improve workers’ lives, but also threaten to degrade or eliminate millions of jobs. In other words, we have to get this right. 

As you know, in the United States and around the world, stakeholders are engaging in a discussion about the future of work. So what makes our report different? First and foremost, it puts workers and unions exactly where we belong: at the center of every discussion about the future of work. And it also includes a serious self-assessment and comprehensive plan for rebuilding the labor movement from the ground up.

If our commission’s work could be boiled down to one central finding, it’s the urgent need for an increase in worker bargaining power. Whether our future is one of shared prosperity or rising inequality, and social and economic dysfunction, depends on the strength of working people’s bargaining power.

This is not our first rodeo. Times changed. Our jobs changed. And we changed with them, building a more prosperous nation and a stronger labor movement in the process. 

Today, we are in the midst of another technological revolution. While technology presents working people with the real threat of disruption, many analysts also predict that artificial intelligence and other advances will make Americans far more productive in the future, allowing us to produce more with fewer hours of work and create greater wealth as a society. If we make the right choices, we have the ability to conquer poverty and workers could spend less time at work while enjoying far higher standards of living.

The most important question is whether the benefits of technological progress will be distributed fairly and broadly—or whether they will continue to be hoarded by the most privileged segments of our society.

The stakes are enormous. A study from Harvard University showed that only 30 percent of millenials believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. 25 percent said democracy is bad. This generation increasingly equates our system of government with economic inequality and political instability. Meanwhile, the same bad actors who wrote our broken economic rules want to use technology to sideline the forces of justice and fairness—those of us fighting for a robust economy that lifts up all working families. They say the invisible hand of the market will work things out. But we know better. And our report demands better. 

So now, I’d like to walk you through a couple of key findings from our commission’s work to tee up today’s discussion. These are by no means exhaustive,  but they do distinguish us from the corporate-funded work being done on this subject. 

First, workers must have a real seat at the table when it comes to the design and deployment of innovation. We reject the assumption that the only question for working people to decide is how we should passively adapt to technological change. Technology does not fall from the sky. It is developed through public policy choices, and by businesses and working people in our workplaces and the marketplace.

The unmistakable role of public funding in U.S. innovation policy provides a clear rationale for actively steering the direction of research and innovation to ensure that technological advances benefit workers and society broadly, not just a handful of private interests.

The labor movement should continue to proactively engage with technology leaders early in the process of research and development, including through applying for federal grant money; exploring avenues for funding research and development designed to benefit working people; and exploring various models for ensuring that publicly funded or assisted research and development has broad societal benefit.

At the recommendation of our commission, we will be forming a new technology institute to develop expertise and gain access to critical information concerning new technologies that may transform work and displace workers, but also can help unions more effectively represent working people. As part of this work, we will build on and expand key partnerships with universities and research institutions, like our commission’s exchange with Carnegie Mellon. 

This will provide us with the knowledge and capacity to engage broadly in the complex innovation process so technology is a force for good, not greed. 

Second, workers must have good jobs to transition to. Discussions about job loss caused by automation and technology tend to focus on training and income support for displaced workers. While these are extremely important, they must be part of a comprehensive good jobs strategy, and unions and collective bargaining are essential to making such a strategy work.

Unions have been at the forefront of addressing technology-driven changes in the workplace, including job loss, for more than a century. The best solution for the individual worker who loses their job is to find another good union job quickly. Training, education and income support can play important supporting roles, but there must be good jobs readily available.

So how do we get there? As Brother Reiner emphasized in a presentation to our commission, we must be very clear that full employment is possible if we make the right policy choices. 

If the United States invests the trillions of dollars needed to rebuild our infrastructure, we can put millions of people to work in good union jobs and maintain strong job growth. In addition, millions of good jobs can be created by investing, organizing and raising labor standards in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. As delegates to our 2017 AFL-CIO Convention recognized, the fastest and most equitable way to address climate change is for labor to lead the way in creating solutions that reduce emissions while investing in our communities, maintaining and creating high-wage union jobs and reducing poverty. 

Third, I think everyone in this room understands that the economy is a global system governed by rules that we have the power to change. As our report concludes, the current rules of the global economy have failed us and they are unsustainable. Failure to rewrite the rules to benefit working people runs the risk of economic instability and political and social conflict. We cannot shape a better future for workers without tackling this problem head on. I think we all know the dangers of right-wing populism to our institutions and our democracies. We have to rewrite the rules of the global economy with a deep commitment to working-class solidarity on a global scale. We in the American labor movement understand that the fate of American workers is tied to the fate of workers and unions in every country.

A fourth area our commission identified for potential progress is work hours. Predictions that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will make workers far more productive in the future have generated interest in the prospect of a “leisure dividend.” I know this is something our German friends have focused on extensively, with your metal union winning the right to a 28-hour work week for more than 2 million members. 

The idea is gaining traction here in America. Even if the predicted spike in worker productivity never materializes, there is a very strong case for redistributing work hours today—that is, for limiting the excessive hours worked by some people, thereby making more work hours available to those who want to work more, and giving all workers control over our time. 

Work hours can be reduced by bargaining or legislating a four-day workweek; earlier retirement; stronger overtime protections; paid holidays; paid vacations; partial unemployment benefits for workers whose hours are reduced; and the “right to disconnect” from digital devices and work. Most of these policies would redistribute work hours to those who have too little work.

If working people can bargain or legislate more time sovereignty and a “leisure dividend” without any reduction in our pay, this could be a key mechanism to help ensure the benefits of technological progress are shared broadly by working people.

Finally, and this is especially important in light of today’s toxic political environment, our commission challenged the labor movement to build working-class solidarity based on the struggles of all working people, no matter our background. At our recent Executive Council meeting in Chicago, America’s unions adopted a statement making clear that the labor movement must be the tip of the spear in the fight against white supremacy. The statement said and I quote: “With each new tragedy and outrage, we are reminded that a well-organized and united workforce is key to winning respect and creating safe and fair conditions that protect the lives and livelihoods of all working families. America’s unions will continue to be on the front lines opposing efforts to rip workers apart for profit.”

The strength of worker bargaining power overall will depend on whether we are able to build inclusive working-class solidarity and prevent working people from being pitted against one another, a longstanding tactic of the wealthy elites who use such division to enrich themselves.

According to the Census Bureau, people of color will become the majority of the U.S. population by 2045. The shift will occur by 2020 for those younger than 18. In addition, if recent trends continue, women will be more than half of the union workforce by 2025.

The labor movement can be the place where all working people come together and no one gets left behind. Strengthening fair employment laws...adopting protections for workers who are discriminated against because of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity...comprehensive immigration reform....voting rights...civil rights...LGBTQ rights...a path to secure work and upward mobility for young people...this is the broad-based agenda that will build solidarity and power for all those who work for a living. Strengthening worker bargaining power overall, in turn, will help build a better future for those who historically have been excluded.

There are many other ways in which our report is breaking new ground and approaching future of work issues from a fresh perspective. Whether it’s aggressively confronting a financialized global economy that is driving a race to the bottom here and around the world or regulating the misuse of algorithms, surveillance and data programs that violate our privacy and discriminate against us, it is clear that working people can and must shape our own future. Thank you. 

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