Itâ€™s December, which means that it is, by law, the time when we look ahead at the coming year, and make shockingly insightful predictions about what lays ahead. AÂ year ago, we madeÂ Ten Predictions for the Year Ahead in LaborÂ that were, it turns out, very good. More on that below. With that track record of quality, you must feel compelled to read our predictions forÂ 2023. Joys, disappointments, and killer robots,Â ahoy!
Standard disclaimer: Predictions are folly, and only fools make them.Â So:
1. AI is aÂ labor problem.Â
Have you played withÂ DALL-EÂ 2, the artificial intelligence system that can spit out professional-quality illustrations based on any prompts you give it? How aboutÂ ChatGPT,Â that can write essays, computer code, or anything else as you converse with it? They are amazing pieces of technology, and they are also aÂ big, flashing sign of gargantuan labor problems ahead.
Enormous swaths of work could be outsourced not to impoverished foreign nations, but to computer programs. This has been aÂ theoretical threat for years, but now AI has reached the point at which it is about to get very, very real. Unions must get ahead of the problem now to try to protect workers. DO NOT WAIT! DO NOT WAIT!
Trying to ban AIâ€™s use is useless, but we would all be wise to seek out advice from unions like the Longshoremen, who have had some success shielding themselves from the ravages of automation. The main point is: We need strong strategies on AI now, because soon, it will be too late. But in even more immediateÂ problemsâ€¦Â
2. The big first contract wall.Â
Weâ€™ve all spent the past year celebrating the success of grassroots union drives at name brand companies: Amazon! Starbucks! Trader Joeâ€™s! Huzzah! Now, those new unions face aÂ task that is, in some respects, even harder: winning aÂ first contract. At Amazon and Starbucks in particular, we have companies that are existentially opposed to unions, and that can and will drag out the contract process unto infinity, in hopes of drowning their fledgling unions in the bathtub.
That would be aÂ blow not just to workers at those companies, but to an entire countryâ€™s worth of grassroots enthusiasm about organizing, which has launched aÂ wave of independent unions. We shouldnâ€™t fool ourselves: Winning these contracts will require aÂ lot of money, lawyers and political capital from the entire labor movement. Even in the best case scenario, itâ€™s gonna take aÂ while. And aÂ related issueâ€¦
3. The green shoots of new labor institutions.Â
The rise of independent organizing drives everywhere was proof, above all, that organized labor as currently constituted wasÂ incapableÂ of absorbing aÂ true moment of opportunity. Rather than leading newly radicalized workers to the promised land, the creaky existing institutions in many cases sat on the sidelines. (TheÂ AFL-CIOâ€™s vowÂ to organize aÂ pathetic one million workers in ten years was the splashiest demonstration of this failure of vision.)
InÂ 2023, look for at least the beginnings of some new institutions that aim to draw together and empower the many little explosions of organizing that we saw inÂ 2022. In betterÂ newsâ€¦
4. Union democracy movements flourish.Â
After many decades of calcified, undemocratic leadership, reform movements inside theÂ UAWÂ and theÂ TeamstersÂ have made significant gains in the past year. Similar movements are bubbling inÂ otherÂ big unions as well. These breakthroughs are, at their core, driven by the same dynamic we mentioned above: Raw desire for worker organizing has reached such aÂ high level that it is ready to fix the many broken, lazy aspects of the union world. And speaking of institutionalÂ opportunitiesâ€¦
5. Higher Ed asserts itself.Â
My number one prediction last year was that higher ed would become aÂ significant player in the union world. Amazing insight, yes! InÂ 2022, the five largest union electionÂ filingsÂ in America (and the biggest strike of the year) were ALL grad student workers at major universities. Higher ed is creating more new union members than any other single industry in America — but they are divided among aÂ number of different unions. It is nice to imagine aÂ single dedicated union in higher ed, which would be large enough to be aÂ significant player in the AFL-CIO, and which could pull that institution left. Ah, one can dream. Elsewhere in potentialÂ powerâ€¦
6. A reckoning for transport unions.Â
Bidenâ€™s decision to prevent railroad workers from striking and impose aÂ contract on them was by far the worst labor thing the ostensibly pro-labor president has done. But it, and this yearâ€™s White House freak out over touchy contract negotiations by longshoremen at West Coast ports, point to the inherent power in all the unions that have aÂ position in the supply chain, and transportation in general. They may be hamstrung by the Railway Labor Act, in legal terms, but aÂ rise in radicalism and coordination between railway, airline, and logistics unions could lead to aÂ real, unassailable demonstration of what strike power looks like. Some of the union leaders in these industries have such vision, and some donâ€™t. The weaker ones should watch their backs. Meanwhile, inÂ Washingtonâ€¦
7. Laborâ€™s legislative gains grind to aÂ halt.Â
In two years of Democratic control of the White House and both branches of Congress, organized labor got aÂ lot of money for its pensions, aÂ very good but severely underfunded NLRB, some nice but not transformative regulatory changes, aÂ crushed rail strike, and no PRO Act. That will beÂ as good as it gets. Now that Republicans have taken the House, the chance for anything better, legislative speaking, is dead. Itâ€™s all aÂ good reminder that we need to be pouring everything into organizing new workers, rather than chasing politicians. And to get aÂ little moreÂ fine-grainedâ€¦
8. The Warrior Met Strike ends.Â
More than aÂ thousand UMWA miners in Alabama haveÂ been on strikeÂ now for more thanÂ 20Â months. AnotherÂ 12Â seems impossible. Somehow the strike should settle inÂ 2023, though the prospect of real gains for the strikers still seems uncertain at best. (The fact that the national Democratic Party didnâ€™t use more of its muscle to lift up this strike was shameful, and foolish.) Donate to theirÂ strike fund! And if you need aÂ more relaxingÂ topicâ€¦
The Major League Baseball Players Association joined the AFL-CIO this year, and promptlyÂ unionizedÂ minor leaguers for the first time, as well. That means the NFL and MLB are both in the union federation; if they can convince the NBA players to join, then the full trifecta of major American sports will be officially part of the larger labor movement. There is still greatÂ opportunityÂ in college athlete organizing as well. In terms of PR for organized labor, these people are gold. Americans love athletes, to aÂ stupid degree. We have to get busy putting all these players in front of cameras to talk about how good unions are, and sending them out to picket lines. Use what we have! We need the help! Finally, to close on aÂ positive noteâ€¦
10. The energy in labor remains astronomical.Â
IÂ tend to focus on the labor movementâ€™s problems. WHICH WE ALL SHOULD. Weâ€™re here to improve things, after all, not send ourselves endless thank you notes. But to take aÂ step back and look at the big picture: We are living through the time of the most promise and excitement that the labor movement has seen since Ronald Reagan crushed the PATCO strike, broke unionsâ€™ spirits and launched four decades of growing inequality.
Now! Now is the time! Itâ€™s been coming for years, but the pandemic accelerated the willingness of workers to take the leap towards organizing — to be willing to take aÂ risk in exchange for the possibility of not having their entire working life be so dreary, underpaid and soul-sucking. IÂ see no reason why this period of desire for unions should end next year. The real question is whether organized labor will be able to harness it, before it is crushed by the backlash from organizedÂ capital.Â
The new year is coming. Letâ€™s get to work.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 19, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.Â