Speech | Future of Work

Trumka: Technology Must Be Used for Good, Not Greed

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the opening meeting of the Commission on the Future of Work and Unions

Good morning, everybody. It is my pleasure to welcome you to the first meeting of the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. I want to thank my partners, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, along with our affiliate union presidents, who represent the broad sectors of the economy and will help guide this important work.

We are also honored to be joined today by a number of labor leaders, academics, policy professionals, organizers and frontline workers who are shaping the future of work in their own unique way.

Our mission is to build bargaining power and provide economic security for millions of Americans amidst massive changes in the workplace, and to make sure we as a movement are effectively organized and structured to get it done. This includes figuring out how to rally and organize workers in the fastest-growing sectors of a rapidly-changing economy.

We can’t afford to sit back. No matter how far we’ve come, we can’t act like there isn’t more change ahead. It’s tempting to hang on to yesterday’s victories. We’ve certainly been guilty of resting on our laurels from time to time. But that only weakens our ability to shape what’s coming next. More than ever, it’s time to look squarely forward.

Strong unions must be at the center of the debate. Shaping the future of work...making the economy fairer for everyone...is our domain.

After all, 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.

We never stand still. Led by this commission, unions will continue to strengthen and evolve.

Today, we are in the midst of another technological revolution. Automation. AI. Digitization. You name it.

This latest disruption comes as a generation of bad policy choices have created an economy where many new industries have grown up with no unions at all. In their efforts to strip us of our rights and dignities, some corporations and politicians have baselessly attempted to erode the very idea of what it means to be an employee. Temporary jobs, scheduling abuse, subcontracting and misclassified workers have become all too common. As a result, more and more young people have lowered their expectations of ever paying off student loans, buying a home or even landing a good job.

This threatens our country’s very foundation—the unwritten social contract that ties my fate to yours. A 2016 study from Harvard University showed that only 30 percent of millenials believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. It’s a startling statistic. I believe it reflects the simple truth that young people are becoming more disillusioned as they bear the brunt of our broken economy.

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. Working people are yearning for the chance to reclaim our voice, and this is the moment to speak louder than ever before.

Something is happening in America. Workers are asserting our own value. We are building a revolution of our own. We see it in the historic teacher strikes sweeping the country. We see it in the more than 14,000 workers who formed and joined unions in just a single week last month. We see it in the countless young people seeking the rights and dignities that come with a voice on the job.

It’s this passion that will strengthen and drive us as we face the dramatic changes that lie ahead. From assembly lines to construction sites to Silicon Valley, we have always adapted to new workplace realities with pride, flexibility and unwavering commitment.

We aren't done yet. With each step forward, we're leading the way to an even healthier, safer and more prosperous society. Auto workers are designing and building nextgen automobiles that will save countless lives on the road. Digital journalists are transforming the newsroom by providing breaking coverage on cutting-edge platforms. Electrical workers are using virtual reality to train a new wave of apprentices, handing them tools that I couldn't have dreamed of when I first stepped foot in a union hall. Listen to this: Steelworkers are advocating for exoskeleton technology—to help workers avoid injuries on the job. We aren't just embracing the future of work. We're living it and pioneering it every single day.

But our experience has also taught us that there is a right way and a wrong way to unleash new tools. Will we let the drivers of inequality pervert technology to foster greater economic injustice and social unrest? Or will we demand that technology improves lives and raises standards and wages across the board? This commission believes technology must be used for good, not greed.

We can demand a world where the gains from technology translate into better pay and working conditions for everyone, where being more productive means we can work less and live more, where artificial intelligence allows us to have better, safer and more interesting jobs. Above all, automation should mean even greater prosperity for us to share in. And therein lies the key to this entire discussion.

As a labor movement, we are focused on using our collective voice to bargain nothing less than a fair piece of the gains from innovation. If the benefits of technology are divided fairly, we can create a new era of broadly shared prosperity, one where working people get a chance to share in the enormous wealth we help create. That’s not a new idea—it’s the foundation of a radical experiment that fostered the strongest economy the world has ever known.

Let’s build that economy once again.

Thank you.

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