At this point automation is inevitable, but that just means we need to think longer and harder about how we prepare for its consequences.
On Tuesday, Fusion Editor-at-Large Alexis Madrigal spoke on the topic with Aspen Institute Fellow Natalie Foster and Jakada Imani of the The Workers Lab at the Real Future Fair in Oakland. They discussed the gig economy, our new political reality, and the future of labor.
Foster used to work for the Obama Administration, and has spent the past few years researching and writing about portable benefits, an idea that’s particularly popular in the technology industry where worker protections and healthcare would travel with individuals rather than being tied to employers.
“Gone are the days where we had one job and we had one employer,” Foster said.
The Workers Lab, where Imani is managing director, is an Oakland-based organization that’s trying to apply the logic of startups and Silicon Valley accelerators to projects in service of the labor movement.
“Most jobs are actually shitty, let’s keep it real. It’s that people organize to make them good jobs.”
The conversation quickly turned to the underlying problems of how workers protect themselves. Imani, whose father was a seasonal worker at a Del Monte fruit canning plant in nearby Emeryville, pointed out that factory jobs had been valorized.
“There’s people who’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “The thing is factory jobs aren’t good jobs, people fought to make them good jobs. Most jobs are actually shitty, let’s keep it real. It’s that people organize to make them good jobs.”
Foster agreed and added that even as the economy has grown, wages have stagnated, an ongoing trend in the decline of traditional labor unions.
Imani matter-of-factly offered a reason for that trend.
“Unions are in decline because they’re under attack.”
It’s a point that’s hard to argue. Republican-led state governments (as well as some Democrats) have contributed to the spread of right-to-work laws and other anti-union legislation that has helped reduce union membership and the power that comes with big membership numbers.
According to Imani, another part of the problem is that traditional labor unions need to see themselves as part of a broader social movement, not simply focusing on pay and benefits.
There are alternative organizing methods and groups, which Foster mentioned. She offered the example of Kristie Williams, a Starbucks barista who started a petition on Coworker.org in 2014 that asked the chain to allow its workers to visibly display tattoos while on the clock. When 25,000 people signed, Starbucks changed its policy.
“Now they’re all connected and pushing for other things at Starbucks,” Foster said.
She also mentioned a brand new initiative by digital organizing group OUR Walmart, which launched a chat bot on Monday that will let Walmart employees ask questions and get information about company policies on, for example, sick leave or paid time off. OUR Walmart started as a project of a large union —the United Food and Commercial Workers—and split off last year.
But the prospect of the next few years under a president and congress who seem likely to be hostile to labor kept coming up.
“There’s gonna be a fight, and it’s gonna be a hard and difficult fight,” Imani said. “I think that as a black person in the United States I have never been confused that the U.S. government has my back. Nope. History shows that’s not really true…They don’t have our back. Latinos kinda know that, and I think some white folks are remembering that again.”
Foster pointed out that part of this fight will be identifying how these battles are fought at different levels of government.
“There has to be a federal shift at some point to say this is our 21st century safety net, but it’s looking much further away.”
“There has to be a federal shift at some point to say this is our 21st century safety net, but it’s looking much further away,” she said of portable benefits. “So in the meantime, I think we keep building at the city and state level.”
The three also discussed how technology companies could be made a part of this fight.
“Our friends who are driving innovation in Silicon Valley don’t have friends in this administration,” Imani said, before asking an important question: “What does an alliance between workers and technologists look like?”
Foster mentioned the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents drivers who work through companies like Uber and Lyft in New York City. The group is administered by a union, the International Association of Machinists, but is not technically a union itself, as Uber is partially responsible for its funding. Foster praised the agreement that led to its founding in May, although its been criticized by others for not granting collective bargaining rights.
But, Imani said, we have to dig deeper and see what remains the same despite the rise of a new industry.
“The fundamental things in the economy…corporations making profit, those things don’t change,” he warned. “Just keep watching what actually matters. Are profits being generated? How are those profits being shared within the institution? That’s the only question that actually matters. Everything else is window dressing.”