Speech | Future of Work

Trumka: We Will Prove We Can Use Technology for Good, Not Greed

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks about the future of work and the labor movement at the Battle of Homestead Foundation's annual meeting:

Good evening. Thank you, Rosemary Trump for that warm welcome. You, John Haer and this foundation are not only preserving the legacy of the 1892 Homestead Strike, but bringing together a diverse group of workers.

My only regret is I'm not home in Pennsylvania. The fact we are still together tonight—still connected—is a sign of the times.

Technology is connecting us at this very moment. It can be a force for good. But technology is also creating extreme economic uncertainty and anxiety.

Technology has been exploited to exacerbate inequality. It’s a matter of who develops it and who has access.

Are workers involved in shaping it? Is there input from diverse perspectives? Who profits? Who gets to use it? And how?

Our concerns are real. And they are certainly not unfounded. As it is, the government socializes the risk of research and development. It privatizes the profits. It doesn’t, as a matter of policy, require good job creation and shared prosperity or union involvement in the development process. That is a choice. It’s a backwards approach. And our movement is committed to changing it.

The Battle of Homestead was driven by radical technological change. It fundamentally altered the relationship between craft skill-based unionism and capitalist industrial organizations. We have to look at the Battle of Homestead as more than a consequential moment in our past. It is a guidepost for our future. The future of America's labor movement. And with it, future opportunities in America.

More than 125 years after Homestead, working people are living through another industrial revolution—this one marked by technology and innovation that are changing everything.

For at least four decades, and especially over these past four years, our unions have been attacked. Our rights weakened. Our voices suppressed.

Meanwhile, technological breakthroughs are happening at a breakneck speed. The American science and engineering enterprise is investing billions. It’s happening in our workplaces and communities—from robotics to autonomous systems. And as we know all too well, the COVID-19 pandemic is only accelerating digital transformation.

Technologies are being developed to replace working people during a time when inequality is soaring. Rapid transformation raises questions on the future of work—questions about jobs and profits. Training and re-skilling. Algorithm bias and data privacy. Democracy and power.

Will we let the exploitation of technology foster greater economic injustice and income divide? Or will we demand that technology raises standards, grows wages, creates opportunity and improves lives? We must choose the latter.

We must shape technological forces, not be decimated by them. America's labor movement will not wave the white flag and surrender to the worst impulses of Silicon Valley billionaires. We will not give in to the greed of the tech barrons who feed off of a perverse system of independent contractor abuses. We will take them on. We are in this fight for the future—our future.

Just two weeks ago, the AFL-CIO launched the Technology Institute. It is a central recommendation of the AFL-CIO’s Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. The Technology Institute will serve as the labor movement’s hub on these important issues.

It will help us test and incubate new ideas, solve issues created by technology and shape innovation—top to bottom. In our workplaces. In the collective bargaining process.

In Pittsburgh where we’ll strengthen partnerships like the one we have with Carnegie Mellon or in Cambridge, Massachusetts with MIT, where research shows more than 60 million workers want a voice in the workplace. By growing labor’s expertise and capacity, our Tech Institute will put power behind workers’ aspirations.

We will prove we can use technology for good, not greed. Reversing inequality. Breaking up the system that has Big Tech and corporate America exerting way too much power over how and why we innovate, with no consideration of workers’ needs. And create opportunities in a future that works for all working people. Whether we are in a union or hope to be.

Make no mistake: we will not shape 21st century technology with 20th century labor laws. Right now, America's labor movement has a generational opportunity. It's called the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize. And it is at the top of the AFL-CIO's Workers First Agenda.

The PRO Act would allow workers to form a union freely and fairly. It would make sure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after our union is recognized. It would end the practice of hiring permanent replacements to punish striking workers. It would hold corporations responsible who try to block workers from forming a union. It would finally ban so-called "right to work" laws—racist relics of the Jim Crow Era that belong in the trash bin of history.

And it would ensure the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 has real teeth—so it can achieve its original purpose, which is clearly stated: To actively encourage collective bargaining. Not to hamstring. Not to even just tolerate unions. But to actively encourage collective bargaining. Nothing less.

Yet in the more than 80 years since its passage, every amendment to the law—most egregiously the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act—has made it more difficult for workers to form unions. And anti-worker judges have tried to whittle away what was left of our rights from the bench.

The PRO Act is how we win a new era where union desire drives union density. And it’s passage is not far-fetched. Last February, Speaker Pelosi and the House passed the PRO Act. Then it stalled in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. And it would have been vetoed by the former president.

One year later, the prospects of passing the PRO Act are far different. We still have a pro-worker House and now we have a pro-worker Senate. And thanks in large part to the Keystone State, we have a president who proudly says he’s “labor from belt buckle to shoe sole.”

This legislation will strengthen our unions, but also grow our movement. Workers are embracing collective action with a fervor I haven't seen since I was growing up in Nemacolin. Union density rose last year—even in the face of unemployment and economic pain and outright political incompetence. The popularity of unions is at 65 percent, one of the highest marks in a half-century.

Every single day it becomes clearer that tech workers want a voice. Google and other Alphabet companies announced earlier this month they are forming the Alphabet Workers Union, in partnership with the Communications Workers of America Union.

This follows union wins at Kickstarter and Glitch. In Bessemer, Alabama, 6,000 workers at Amazon will vote on forming a union of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Just imagine the possibilities. When tech workers win a union, they have power. And when workers have more power, CEOs cannot make decisions about technology unilaterally.

Tech and innovation are part of the next frontier of America's labor movement. There is enough room in the labor movement for the steelworker and the tech worker. Enough energy to harness technology and rebuild America with union labor and union steel.

Unions are for everyone, in every field. That’s why the labor movement is working to organize Big Tech and fighting for a fair and equitable future of work—in every sector.

This is what we do. This is what we know. This is who we are.

For more than 100 years, America’s labor movement has built collective power for workers in various kinds of uncertain and vulnerable industries. We've turned bad jobs into good jobs. Our efforts transformed entire industries so generations of workers were able to sustain families as part of thriving communities.

This is what unions do.

We believe there is no basis for the pessimistic view that good jobs soon will be a thing of the past. Workers—all workers—in the future can enjoy the rights and protections of employees. Uber and Lyft. Boeing and GM. Teachers and first responders.

Our movement is always the best bet for workers, and workers are our nation's greatest hope. Workers are marching and demanding a voice on the job and a say in the future.

A better future can become a reality if we make the right choices now. Let’s choose hope over fear. Let’s choose good over greed. Let’s choose worker-driven innovation over corporate-driven inequality. When we come together, when we dream together, when we work together, anything is possible.

We can build a brighter tomorrow, a better America and a future of work that works for all of us.

Thank you. God bless you. I am happy to take some questions.

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