Speech | Future of Work

Trumka at MIT: The Future Is What We Make of It

Cambridge, Mass.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the MIT School of Management: 

Professor (Tom) Kochan, thank you so much for that introduction. You’d probably be happy to know that I quote your worker voice study in almost every speech I deliver. So let me just get it out of the way now. Research from MIT shows that more than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance.

It is a pleasure to be with all of you. I just had a meeting with President Reif about the future of work. This is the issue dominating every room I’m in these days. I imagine it’s a pretty big topic of conversation across this school as well.

As future managers, you are uniquely positioned to shape the trajectory of our economy, our country and quite frankly, the entire world. And for those of you who are engineering students, the big decisions around technology and automation and artificial intelligence could one day be in your hands. So as someone who represents 55 unions, 12.5 million workers and the hopes of those aspiring union members in Professor Kochan’s survey, I truly value this opportunity to spend some time with you.

At its core, I believe the future of work debate is about voice. Who has a say in the development and deployment of technology? Who owns, controls and profits from the data we all generate?  Who decides how the benefits of technology are distributed? Who gets to set the ground rules on the ethics of information technology, on questions of privacy and prejudice? Sometimes it seems like we are quickly heading toward a future where these choices are made exclusively by billionaires...where the future of work is determined in behind closed doors, in rooms where workers are not allowed in.

But I don’t think that is going to be our future. America’s workers, particularly young people, are tired of being silenced. We are hungry for connection to each other, so we can influence the decisions that will shape the future.

At the AFL-CIO’s 2017 Convention, we formed a commission on the future of work and unions.  And just as we began our work, it became clear that a generation of rigged economic rules and anti-worker attacks had awakened the incredible passion and power of working people. Teachers in states where collective bargaining is illegal successfully walked out for better pay and smaller class sizes. Google employees went on strike around the world in support of the #MeToo movement and climate justice. Graduate students are organizing like never before. 50,000 UAW members at General Motors went on strike and won. Their demand was simple: 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 into law, clarifying that more than 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. Workers inside and outside of unions have stood together to win progress on everything from sexual harassment to immigration to climate change. And across the Charles in Boston, Marriott workers were part of a nationwide strike, winning a say in how new technologies are deployed in the hotel business. 

Union approval is at 64 percent, the highest in nearly 50 years. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation. 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. And nothing less than our democracy hangs in the balance. 

Exactly who gets to be heard in the workplace, in the economy and ultimately in politics is the great question of the modern age.  

I served as president of the United Mine Workers of America for 17 years. It was one of the greatest honors of my life. This is a union with a long history of raising the voices of coal miners and our communities. We believe in democracy. In justice. And in fairness for all. 

So, when apartheid in South Africa was in full swing, I couldn’t help think about our fights in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. The struggle to be treated as human beings. To have a voice at work, a share in the wealth we created and a real chance to elect people to government who represented us. And when I met a young South African miner named Cyril Ramaphoza, I realized we were brothers on the same journey. 

Now fast forward thirty years. Cyril is the President of South Africa. And together with the Prime Minister of Sweden, a former metal worker, Cyril co-chaired the International Labor Organization’s commission on the future of work. This commission’s report makes clear that the real issue isn’t technology itself. The real issue is the human arrangements that shape how technology is used and who reaps the benefits. And the real question is whether human beings will be listened to and respected. Will our work be honored? Will our voices be heard?

And, I don't think it’s a coincidence that both MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, led by your distinguished scholars David Autor and David Mindell, and the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions that I mentioned earlier, agreed with the ILO Commission that working people must be in the room when the decisions get made that shape how technology is used in the workplace.

Consider what happens when working people’s voices are not heard.

In the past thirty years in the United States, wages have been flat as productivity has soared.  Less than 7 percent of the private sector workforce now belongs to a union or is protected by collective bargaining. Inequality has reached historic levels. In fact, 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. And study after study shows that political power has flowed directly to the very wealthy and away from the common working person. 

And the result? A study from, forgive me, Harvard University, showed that only 30 percent of millenials believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. 25 percent actually said democracy is bad. I believe this reflects the simple truth that your generation increasingly equates our system of government with economic inequality and political instability. 

If we want to secure a democratic and prosperous future, working people must have a real seat at the table when it comes to the design and deployment of innovation. After all, 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.

But in order to make our voices heard in this process, working people must have the expertise to make our seat at the table count for something. So, the AFL-CIO is in the process of setting up a technology institute to connect the labor movement with institutions like MIT. The goal is to help us gain the knowledge and capacity needed to engage broadly in the complex innovation process, so technology is used as a force for good, not greed. 

At the same time, this is not our first rodeo. Before the punch clock and the assembly line, there was the hand tool and the workshop. Before the hardhat, there was the artisan's apron. Before diesel and electricity, there was steam. Times changed. Our jobs changed. And we changed with them, building a more prosperous nation and a stronger labor movement in the process. 

And, we’ve learned a lot, like if workers aren’t involved in the design of technology we’re supposed to use at work, then the technology will probably be poorly designed in basic ways. In other words, it just won’t work.

If workers don’t have power, the kind of power that only can be won through collective bargaining, businesses are likely to make short-sighted decisions about how to deploy technology...and that can end up destroying valuable human capital in the process.

And, if workers don’t share in the gains from technology, the resulting inequality will exacerbate our broken economy, our divided communities and indeed, our toxic politics. It’s a vicious cycle, one that working people can have a hand in changing and reshaping for the better. 

And that brings me back to our common future and the role you can play as leaders. We are at a moment where the world urgently needs to take on the greatest challenges of our time: global poverty and climate change. Innovation, technology and productivity growth can provide solutions. But not if we sit and wait for someone else to do it.  

The path forward is right in front of us: 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. Then, millions of good jobs can be created by investing, organizing and raising labor standards in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. The fastest and most equitable way to address climate change is to create solutions that reduce emissions while investing in our communities, maintaining and creating high-wage union jobs and reducing poverty. 

We also think it’s high time to end the growing trend of work swallowing more and more of life. Rising productivity should mean shorter work hours. We should consider moving toward a four-day workweek. That is the logical consequence of predictions that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will make workers far more productive in the future.  

But 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. Doing so could help ensure the benefits of technological progress are shared broadly.

In a world of full employment where workers have bargaining power and an effective voice, technological change should mean rising wages, falling hours and better lives. If that isn’t happening, we should point the finger, not at science or technology, but at the domination of the wealthy over our economics and our politics.

I want to close by pointing out that the path to a positive future of work, one compatible with democracy, is not just about technology. As part of our commission, we undertook a serious self-assessment at how we could attract a workforce that is growing increasingly more diverse. According to the Census Bureau, people of color will become the majority of the U.S. population by 2045. The shift will occur by next year for those younger than 18. The labor movement is already nearly 7 million women, and by 2025, they are on track to make up more than half of the union workforce.

So, if we do this right, 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 who work for a living. 

I remember sitting in law school at Villanova in the 1970s and wondering what I would do next. The choices I’ve made in the 50 years since—to become active in my union, to pursue a career in the labor movement, to serve others—they have put me in a position to do some real good. And that has made every day worth living. 

That’s what I want for you as future leaders at the intersection of business and technology and innovation. I want you to have a seat at the table and a voice in the debate. I want you to study and search and shape. And, I want you to not be afraid to fail. Whether it’s reversing a generation of income inequality or tackling climate change, there is big work to be done. It’s going to take some risks, but the rewards will be worth it. The future is what we make of it. 

And…to do the great work that must be done in America and around the world…all of us...managers...engineers…financial experts…construction workers…teachers…must work together.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.  

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