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AFL-CIO to workers: Fight AI with one hand behind your back


Last December, the AFL-CIO announced a collaboration with Microsoft. In exchange for not opposing AI, Microsoft promised to take a neutral position on further unionization by its workers. 

The problem with this new partnership is that the AFL-CIO is asking workers to fight with one hand behind their backs while Microsoft enters the ring with an armed robot at its side.  

The agreement will result in Microsoft literally schooling workers and unions about why AI is good for them, informing workers when AI is forced on them, and lobbying together to support AI.  

For the AFL-CIO, the main prize was the company’s promise to remain neutral when more Microsoft workers unionize. So far there has been one neutrality agreement with 376 Communications Workers of America workers at the Microsoft owned ZeniMax game company.  

The agreement avoided a National Labor Relations Board  representation election but has not yet resulted in a first contract after nearly a year of bargaining. So far, the only agreement has been that Microsoft will inform members of ZeniMax Workers United-CWA when it uses AI and bargain the impacts on them. In addition, 23 of 77 temp workers have been converted into full-time permanent employees and the remaining temps promised full-time jobs once an agreement is ratified. Ordinarily, changing employment status during bargaining would be considered an unfair labor practice. 

The AFL-CIO and CWA have proved to be cheap dates for the multinational corporation. Microsoft has about 220,000 employees worldwide, 120,000 of them in the U.S. This means the new union has a membership of only .0017 percent of Microsoft’s employees.  

Microsoft has tamed the federation at the perfect time. The AFL-CIO promises to snuggle with AI at just the moment when workers are fighting AI in Hollywood, the New York modeling industry, hotels and tech. This is a huge payday for Microsoft, which is the largest investor in OpenAI, the inventor of the widely used ChatGPT. 

This agreement is historical in yet another way. It is a historical capitulation to the boss when a string of studies shows AI will likely de-skill and even replace hundreds of millions of workers in the next few years. The workers most at risk of deskilling or being made obsolete are those in law, health care, administrative support, writing, art and education.  

Thanks to sci-fi movies and books, we commonly think of AI as humanoid machines that will outsmart humanity and obliterate us. But current “generative” AI, which can create something new based on its capacity to make decisions, predict outcomes and solve problems, is becoming an advanced tool that will be used alongside human workers. Like all previous tools, it will be used to de-skill and replace parts or all of the work we do and get us to produce more for less wages.  

The impact of this type of AI will be much like the way the assembly line de-skilled craft workers and tied us to the conveyor belt. Early assembly-line workers didn’t sign sweetheart deals to give the boss a free hand but they formed powerful industrial unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World and The Union for Everyone to disrupt them.  

Today, the AFL-CIO’s “partnership” with Microsoft would be the equivalent of unions giving industrial engineer Frederick Taylor a free pass to use his time-motion studies to control assembly line workers without any opposition. 

According to Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, the agreement shows that “by working directly with labor leaders, we can help ensure that AI serves the country’s workers.” This is doubtful. AI is not being developed or introduced to “serve” workers but to automate some of our work, replace us, reduce labor costs, increase control over our labor, and make us work harder and produce more in less time.  

When the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful corporation is talking about “serving” workers, it’s time to count the family silver the AFL-CIO gave away for empty words. 

Control of AI will not come from receiving advance notice that the boss will make workers use AI or replace us with it. Notification is not the same as giving consent. The deal allows Microsoft to force AI on the workers and the union to file a grievance or bargain over it. This leaves the power in the company’s hands to act and the workers to react after the fact. 

We need to instead see AI as a weapon against workers in the struggle for control of work. One month before the AFL-CIO sell-out to Microsoft, the Vegas Culinary Workers Union Local 226 ratified a new contract for 10,000 Caesars workers. The union had threatened a citywide strike just ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix weekend and two months before the Super Bowl in that city. To avoid the strike, the company agreed to a CBA in which it must not only inform the workers six months in advance when it wants to use AI and also provide retraining, benefits and severance for job losses. 

Retraining and severance are steps in the right direction. But the supposed benefits of increased productivity from AI need to be shared through less work. Reducing the official workweek to 32 hours would be a good start if it applies to all workers not just those paid by the hour.   

AI won’t be fought by empty promises, new policies and laws, or even CBAs alone. It will require that workers continue shifting our organizing to democratically controlling our work. The long Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which ended shortly before the AFL-CIO’s capitulation, proved that only workers’ actual or threatened disruption will put a leash on AI

Thankfully, the AFL-CIO is so far out of step with workers’ fight against AI that this deal will soon be historically irrelevant.

Robert Ovetz is the editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” co-editor of the new “Real World Labor (Vol. 4)” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back: and “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert.

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