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Employers Are Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ush­ered in by a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But is it turn­ing employ­ment into a Work­ers’ Par­adise of work­ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth­er panopticon?

Dis­turb­ing increas­es in use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies by employ­ers to mon­i­tor their remote work­ers is rais­ing alarm bells. With the num­ber of remote work­ers surg­ing as a result of the pan­dem­ic—42% of U.S. work­ers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv­ing rooms and home offices—a num­ber of employ­ers have begun requir­ing their work­ers to down­load spy­ing soft­ware to their lap­tops and smart­phones. The goal is for busi­ness­es to mon­i­tor what their remote employ­ees do all day, and to track job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and reduce so-called “cyber-slack­ing.”

Busi­ness soft­ware prod­ucts from Hub­staff, which tracks a worker’s mouse move­ments, key­board strokes, web­pages vis­it­ed, email, file trans­fers and appli­ca­tions used, are surg­ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work­ers down­load to their smart­phones so that employ­ers can track their loca­tion. Anoth­er prod­uct, called Time Doc­tor, down­loads videos of employ­ees’ screens and uses a com­put­er’s web­cam, which can take a pic­ture of the employ­ee every 10 min­utes. As one work­er who was sub­ject­ed to Time Doc­tor told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few min­utes, if you go to the bath­room or to the kitchen, a pop-up comes up and says, ‘You have 60 sec­onds to start work­ing again or we’re going to pause your time.’” 

Anoth­er sys­tem, Inter­Guard, can be secret­ly installed on work­ers’ com­put­ers. As the Wash­ing­ton Post notes, it “cre­ates a minute-by-minute time­line of every app and web­site they view, cat­e­go­riz­ing each as ‘pro­duc­tive’ or ‘unpro­duc­tive’ and rank­ing work­ers by their ‘pro­duc­tiv­i­ty score.’” Oth­er employ­ers are using a low­er tech approach, requir­ing work­ers to stay on a tele­con­fer­ence like Zoom all day so they can be con­tin­u­al­ly watched.

Since the Covid-19 out­break, one sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny, Aware­ness Tech­nolo­gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec­u­tives at Hub­staff and Tera­mind also say demand for their com­pa­nies’ mon­i­tor­ing prod­ucts have tripled. One web­site show­ing “Employ­ee Mon­i­tor­ing Soft­ware in the USA” lists near­ly 70 com­pa­nies with prod­ucts for sale.

Out­dat­ed laws keep it legal

Online sur­veil­lance of employ­ees may seem inva­sive and creepy, but it is a legal prac­tice in the Unit­ed States. Indi­vid­ual state laws vary over whether com­pa­nies must inform work­ers that they’re using track­ing soft­ware, but in real­i­ty “when you’re on your office com­put­er, you have no pri­va­cy at all,” Lewis Malt­by, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Workrights Insti­tute, told CNBC. “Any­thing and every­thing you do is prob­a­bly mon­i­tored by your boss.”

Cur­rent laws are vast­ly out­dat­ed, as they are based on the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act of 1986, when the pri­ma­ry form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion was the tele­phone. That was a dis­tant time when desk­top com­put­ers were first becom­ing pop­u­lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coro­n­avirus out­break, com­pa­nies such as Price­wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers (PwC) and Sales­force have devel­oped intru­sive appli­ca­tions that enable com­pa­nies to con­tin­u­ous­ly track the health sta­tus of their employ­ees. Often they include a sys­tem for track­ing con­tacts between employ­ees with­in an office, and a mobile app for col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about their health sta­tus. A num­ber of large U.S. employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zonWal­mart, Home Depot and Star­bucks, are tak­ing the tem­per­a­tures of their employ­ees before they are allowed to work. Cer­tain­ly, employ­ers have a legit­i­mate need to col­lect the nec­es­sary data to safe­guard their work­places, espe­cial­ly in response to a pan­dem­ic. But what is the appro­pri­ate lev­el of “health intru­sion”? How vol­un­tary is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers, and who gets to decide? 

The real­i­ty of this con­stant Big Broth­er dig­i­tal spy­ing in people’s homes is that dozens of remote work­ers are start­ing to com­plain that they feel burned out by this pres­sure. A recent Fish­bowl sur­vey of major com­pa­nies’ employ­ees found that three-quar­ters of those polled were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com­pa­ny to trace their con­tacts with col­leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand­ed as trou­ble­mak­ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work­ers hard­ly see each oth­er—and increas­ing­ly may not even know many of their cowork­ers—these fac­tors will make labor orga­niz­ing and col­lec­tive work­er empow­er­ment increas­ing­ly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo­cate for updat­ing these out­dat­ed laws. One union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, has been work­ing to blunt the worst of the abus­es. Labor-friend­ly media have been miss­ing this sto­ry as well. Not only should unions advo­cate to update the laws and lim­it dig­i­tal spy­ing, but why not also demand that home-based work­ers be com­pen­sat­ed by employ­ers for use of their house, util­i­ties and the inter­net? And that the employ­er remains respon­si­ble to pro­vide equip­ment and a safe work­place, even in the home?

Remote work­force growth—the new normal?

As the num­ber of remote work­ers ris­es, con­cerns are grow­ing among labor advo­cates that this is quick­ly becom­ing the “new nor­mal.” One sur­vey found that 74% of com­pa­nies intend to keep some pro­por­tion of their work­force on a per­ma­nent remote sta­tus, with near­ly a quar­ter of respon­dents say­ing they will move at least 20% of their on-site employ­ees to per­ma­nent remote sta­tus. Google, whose par­ent com­pa­ny is Alpha­bet, recent­ly announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and con­tract employ­ees home until at least July 2021, and Mark Zucker­berg pre­dicts half of Face­book employ­ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al insur­ance bro­ker­age, has shift­ed 90% of its 12,000-plus employ­ees to remote sta­tus. Teleper­for­mance, the world’s largest call-cen­ter com­pa­ny, esti­mates that near­ly 155,000 of its employ­ees—almost half its glob­al work­force—will not return to a phys­i­cal work­site. A sur­vey of firms bythe Sur­vey of Busi­ness Uncer­tain­ty found that the share of work­ing days spent at home is expect­ed to increase four­fold from a pre-Covid-19 lev­el of 5 per­cent to 20%. Post-pan­dem­ic, many employ­ees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.

But not all at-home work­ers are cre­at­ed equal. Stan­ford econ­o­mist Nicholas Bloom says “This is gen­er­at­ing a time bomb for inequal­i­ty.” More edu­cat­ed, high­er-earn­ing employ­ees are far more like­ly to work from home, con­tin­u­ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth­ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit­able space or fast, afford­able inter­net con­nec­tions, and they are being left behind. “They face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe­ri­ence erode dur­ing an extend­ed shut­down and beyond,” says Bloom.

The future of work has become more uncer­tain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advo­cates must ensure that the pan­dem­ic is not mis­used by busi­ness­es as an excuse to wors­en con­di­tions for employ­ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag­ine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘plat­form’ work could blur, lead­ing to more ‘Uber­iza­tion’ as work devolves into ‘inde­pen­dent’ con­tracts, bogus self-employ­ment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrange­ments that can be eas­i­ly out­sourced to remote (and low­er cost) destinations.

Work­er advo­cates must push for a strong and mod­ern legal data pro­tec­tion frame­work. And that should include an effec­tive enforce­ment sys­tem against pri­va­cy abuse that cre­ates a dis­in­cen­tive against ille­gal spy­ing behav­ior. Remote work should not become a down­ward slide toward a Big Broth­er panop­ti­con that pen­e­trates into soci­ety ever more deeply, includ­ing into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Econ­o­my” and Run­away Cap­i­tal­ism Are Screw­ing Amer­i­can Work­ers and The Start­up Illu­sion: How the Inter­net Econ­o­my Threat­ens Our Wel­fare.


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Corona-fied: Employers Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ushered in by a global pandemic. But is it turning employment into a Worker’s Paradise of working at home? Or more of a Big Brother panopticon?

Disturbing increases in the use of digital surveillance technologies by employers to monitor their remote workers are raising alarm bells. With the number of remote workers surging as a result of the pandemic—42 percent of U.S. workers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, living rooms, and home offices—a number of employers have begun requiring their workers to download spying software to their laptops and smartphones. The goal is for businesses to monitor what their remote employees do all day, to track job performance and productivity, and to reduce so-called “cyber-slacking.”

Business software products from Hubstaff, which tracks a worker’s mouse movements, keyboard strokes, webpages visited, email, file transfers and applications used, are surging in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which workers download to their smartphones so that employers can track their location. Another product, called Time Doctor, “downloads videos of employees’ screens” and uses “a computer’s webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes,” NPR reports. One employee told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or… [to the kitchen], a pop-up will come up and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time.’”

Another system, InterGuard, can be secretly installed on workers’ computers. The Washington Post reports that it “creates a minute-by-minute timeline of every app and website they view, categorizing each as ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ and ranking workers by their ‘productivity score.’” Other employers are using a lower-tech approach, requiring workers to stay logged in to a teleconference service like Zoom all day so they can be continually watched.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, one surveillance company, Awareness Technologies, says it has seen its sales triple. Executives at Hubstaff and Teramind also say demand for their companies’ monitoring products has tripled. One website showing “Employee Monitoring Software in the USA” lists nearly 70 companies with products for sale.

Outdated Laws Keep It Legal

Despite this surge in online surveillance activity, currently, it is a legal practice in the United States. Individual state laws vary over whether companies must inform workers that they’re using tracking software, but in reality, “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Current laws are vastly outdated, as they are based on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, when the primary form of electronic communication was the telephone. That was a distant time when desktop computers were first becoming popular, and smartphones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, companies such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Salesforce have developed intrusive applications that enable companies to continuously track the health status of their employees. Often they include a system for tracking contacts between employees within an office, and a mobile app for collecting information about their health status. A number of large U.S. employers, including AmazonWalmart, Home Depot and Starbucks, are taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work. Certainly, employers have a legitimate need to collect the necessary data to safeguard their workplaces, especially in response to a pandemic. But what is the appropriate level of “health intrusion”? How voluntary is the participation of workers, and who gets to decide?

The reality of this constant Big Brother digital spying in people’s homes is that dozens of remote workers are starting to complain that they feel burned out by this pressure. A recent Fishbowl survey of major companies’ employees found that three-quarters of those polled were opposed to using “an app or device that allows their company to trace their contacts with colleagues.” Yet many fear they will be branded as a troublemaker or lose their job if they speak out. And since remote workers hardly see each other—and increasingly may not even know many of their coworkers—these factors will make labor organizing and collective worker empowerment increasingly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advocate for updating these outdated laws. One union, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, has been working to blunt the worst of the abuses. Labor-friendly media have been missing this story as well. Not only should unions advocate to update the laws and limit digital spying, but why not also demand that home-based workers be compensated by employers for use of their house, utilities and the internet? And that the employer remains responsible to provide equipment and a safe workplace, even in the home?

Remote Workforce GrowthThe New Normal?

As the number of remote workers rises, concerns are growing among labor advocates that this is quickly becoming the “new normal.” One survey by Gartner, Inc. found that 74 percent of companies intend to keep some proportion of their workforce on permanent remote status, with nearly a quarter of respondents saying they will move at least 20 percent of their on-site employees to permanent remote status. Google/Alphabet recently announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and contract employees home until at least July 2021, and half of Facebook employees will work from home over the next decade. Hub International, a global insurance brokerage, has shifted 90 percent of its 12,000 employees to remote status. “Teleperformance, the world’s largest call-center company, estimates that around 150,000 of its employees [nearly half its global workforce] will not return to a physical worksite,” according to Social Europe.

Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom says:

“A recent separate survey of firms from the Survey of Business Uncertainty that I run with the Atlanta Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago indicated that the share of working days spent at home is expected to increase fourfold from pre-COVID levels, from 5 percent to 20 percent.

“Of the dozens of firms I have talked to, the typical plan is that employees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.”

But not all at-home workers are created equal. Bloom continues:

“Taken together, this is generating a time bomb for inequality. Our results show that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home—so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home—either because of the nature of their jobs, or because they lack suitable space or internet connections—are being left behind. They face bleak prospects if their skills and work experience erode during an extended shutdown and beyond.”

The future of work has become more uncertain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advocates must ensure that the pandemic is not misused by businesses as an excuse to worsen conditions for employees who work out of the office. It is easy to imagine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘platform’ work could blur, leading to more ‘Uberization’ as work devolves into ‘independent’ contracts, bogus self-employment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrangements that can be easily outsourced to remote (and lower-cost) destinations.

Worker advocates must push for a strong and modern legal data protection framework. And that should include an effective enforcement system against privacy abuse that disincentivizes illegal spying behavior. Remote work should not become a downward slide toward a Big Brother panopticon that penetrates into society ever more deeply, including into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute, on September 23, 2020.

About the Author: Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the author of Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve.


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The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive

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The pandemic has made tech stronger, but unions haven’t caught up.

Big tech is get­ting big­ger. The five biggest pub­lic com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all tech com­pa­nies. Their stock prices have col­lec­tive­ly risen by more than a third this year. The coro­n­avirus has been a bless­ing for them. It has super­charged their growth, even as it’s dev­as­tat­ed many oth­er busi­ness­es. When this pan­dem­ic is over, the tech industry’s share of our econ­o­my?—?and all of the pow­er that comes with that?—?will be greater than ever.

The Gild­ed Age is here again. Not with rail­roads and steel com­pa­nies, but with tech com­pa­nies, which are tak­ing over old indus­tries and form­ing new ones, divert­ing enor­mous piles of wealth towards them­selves along the way. Gates and Bezos and Zucker­berg and Musk are the new Rock­e­feller and Carnegie and Mel­lon and Ford. The unique nature of this cri­sis, which has kept peo­ple inside and on screens, has only accel­er­at­ed the over­haul of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. The indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion is long gone, and the tech rev­o­lu­tion can declare vic­to­ry. Ana­lysts say we are in a ?“bear mar­ket for humans,” as tech com­pa­nies are reward­ed for their abil­i­ty to squeeze human work­ers out of exis­tence. The cap­i­tal has shift­ed, and the labor is just being dragged along.

Ide­al­ly, orga­nized labor is an equal coun­ter­bal­ance to cor­po­rate pow­er. In Amer­i­ca in 2020, where only one in ten work­ers is a union mem­ber, that is obvi­ous­ly not the case. Cap­i­tal runs the show. The abil­i­ty of the work­ing class to exer­cise fun­da­men­tal pow­er over the terms and con­di­tions of our econ­o­my is extreme­ly lim­it­ed, exist­ing only in cer­tain pock­ets of cer­tain indus­tries. If we ever hope to reverse our 40-year climb in inequal­i­ty and re-cre­ate the mid­dle class and wrench our soci­ety back toward fair­ness, work­ing peo­ple need to be able to exer­cise pow­er in the con­text of the entire econ­o­my, not just in iso­lat­ed places. That is the scale of change that the labor move­ment needs to aim for. Unions need to be every­where cap­i­tal is, or cap­i­tal will win and labor will lose. Our exist­ing world proves that basic point. Right now, there is no more gap­ing hole for orga­nized labor than the tech indus­try. Unions have almost no pow­er there. And that’s where all the eco­nom­ic pow­er lies. This is not a small prob­lem for unions?—?it is an exis­ten­tial one.

Apple is not union. Microsoft is not union. Not Ama­zon, nor Alpha­bet, nor Face­book. Those five com­pa­nies alone are worth $7.3 tril­lion. Not only is all of that pow­er com­plete­ly untouched by the influ­ence of unions, but almost all small­er tech com­pa­nies are non-union as well. It is not hard to see that if our goal is to allow orga­nized labor to exert mean­ing­ful influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my, then it is a fair­ly major prob­lem that orga­nized labor is absent from the indus­try that exerts the most influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my. The tech indus­try is the biggest fail­ure of the union move­ment in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Smart peo­ple in the labor move­ment have under­stood this fact for some time. Indeed, there has been a decent amount of non-union labor orga­niz­ing in the tech indus­try over the past five years or so, result­ing in some vis­i­ble actions like the 2018 Google walk­outs. Though that orga­niz­ing has val­ue, it does not pro­duce a last­ing inter­nal struc­ture that can col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain and per­ma­nent­ly change the bal­ance of pow­er between work­ers and man­age­ment and investors. That would require a union. When we gaze out across the land­scape of the mighty tech indus­try in search of suc­cess­ful union orga­niz­ing, there are decid­ed­ly slim pick­ings.

One bright spot is Kick­starter, where employ­ees won a bit­ter fight to union­ize ear­li­er this year. Pan­dem­ic-induced lay­offs have cut that unit from around 90 to 50 employ­ees in recent months, but the work­ers say the union has been a suc­cess­ful safe­ty net, allow­ing them to bar­gain for bet­ter sev­er­ance. In a col­lec­tive state­ment, the Kick­starter union says that ?“The pan­dem­ic has done away with the illu­sion that tech labor is excep­tion­al­ly secure,” and that they are a demon­stra­tion to oth­ers in their indus­try that a union can not only pro­tect work­ers, but also ?“ensure the soft­ware we pro­duce not be deployed in ways that con­tribute to the mad­ness around us.”

?“Our expe­ri­ence has giv­en us hope that the pro­gres­sive cul­ture of Amer­i­can tech will rapid­ly lead to the wide­spread under­stand­ing that 2020 is the time to orga­nize,” the Kick­starter union says. ?“It’s time for Amer­i­can tech to move past its ?‘move fast, break things’ phase into an era of solv­ing real prob­lems for real peo­ple. We believe it falls to us, the work­ers, to imple­ment this ethos.”

Grace Reck­ers, an orga­niz­er at the Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (OPEIU) who helped to orga­nize Kick­starter, says that there has been a sub­se­quent influx of inter­est from work­ers at oth­er tech com­pa­nies, and that there are sev­er­al new orga­niz­ing dri­ves in progress. She says that the stereo­type of tech employ­ees?—?indi­vid­u­al­is­tic engi­neers with lib­er­tar­i­an ideals and lit­tle inter­est in col­lec­tive action?—?is just not accu­rate. ?“In NYC, the oppo­site is true,” Reck­ers says. ?“A lot of peo­ple are dri­ven to work [at tech com­pa­nies] because of mis­sion-based val­ues of the com­pa­ny. They have pol­i­tics that align with some mis­sion of the com­pa­ny.”

Google famous­ly pro­claimed ?“Don’t Be Evil.” When such com­pa­nies are worth a tril­lion dol­lars, con­trol the media and exer­cise vast polit­i­cal pow­er, hold­ing them to their word can be a pow­er­ful moti­va­tion for employ­ees to orga­nize, even if those employ­ees are get­ting good salaries.

One of the only major unions that has launched a ded­i­cat­ed effort to orga­nize in tech is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), which hired two orga­niz­ers this year for a cam­paign called CODE. Its lead orga­niz­er is Emma Kine­ma, who co-found­ed the video game indus­try group Game Work­ers Unite. Kine­ma sees the tech indus­try as a sprawl­ing mon­ster with ten­ta­cles that reach from the media to enter­tain­ment to logis­tics to retail, touch­ing almost every­thing. She wor­ries not only about the direct employ­ees of tech com­pa­nies, but also about the cease­less ten­den­cy of tech to shunt more and more work­ers into a ?“gig econ­o­my” pur­ga­to­ry. And while she says that inter­est in orga­niz­ing is grow­ing con­stant­ly among work­ers, she is blunt about the lack of resources being devot­ed to the issue on a nation­al scale.

?“On the whole, the U.S. labor move­ment has com­plete­ly failed to rise to the chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try,” she says. ?“If the move­ment under­stood just how essen­tial orga­niz­ing in tech was, we’d be set­ting up orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees like the CIO did,” seiz­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by the pandemic’s unrest to under­take a mas­sive and well-coor­di­nat­ed indus­tri­al orga­niz­ing effort.

Alas, that is not what’s hap­pen­ing. The fail­ure thus far to orga­nize tech is a direct result of the lack of any strong cen­tral lead­er­ship from the union move­ment. Even if the few union orga­niz­ers cur­rent­ly work­ing on tech are the best orga­niz­ers in the world, it’s laugh­able to think that a hand­ful of under­paid union staffers can rea­son­ably take on a mul­ti-tril­lion dol­lar indus­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers will need to be orga­nized, and, in all like­li­hood, a new union will have to be formed for that pur­pose, because no exist­ing union has the spare tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per year it will take to run such an orga­niz­ing cam­paign in any­thing close to an ade­quate way. Log­i­cal­ly, the AFL-CIO should coor­di­nate this kind of effort, pool­ing resources from many unions for the good of the move­ment. In real­i­ty, there is no evi­dence that any of the union world’s biggest pow­ers have even grasped how urgent this issue is.

Yes, it will be a long and very expen­sive process to union­ize tech. That is beside the point. In the long run, suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion of an indus­try cre­ates self-sus­tain­ing labor pow­er that can grow, as dues mon­ey from well-paid new union mem­bers is pooled and direct­ed to where it’s most need­ed. Besides, we have no choice. Ask some­one try­ing to cob­ble togeth­er a liv­ing as an Uber dri­ver or Instacart work­er how well the pow­er of a tech indus­try com­plete­ly unchecked by labor pow­er is serv­ing them. Either we orga­nize tech, or it will orga­nize the rest of us to serve it.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Internal divides cloud tech industry’s antitrust defense

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Steven OverlyIn July, the head of a leading tech lobbying group published a warning against overly broad antitrust investigations that “could jeopardize American companies’ leadership” — a message that came amid rising regulatory heat on the group’s members Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

But it soon became clear that some in the Information Technology Industry Council didn’t want to risk being seen as defending the four embattled tech giants.

During a conference call days later, members of ITI’s executive committee reminded CEO Jason Oxman that the group’s members don’t all share the same views on the brewing antitrust battle in Washington, two people familiar with the conversation said. They urged the association’s leadership not to go beyond the talking points of Oxman’s blog post.

The brushback highlights a byproduct of the tech backlash in Washington: Even as some of the industry’s biggest names confront mounting questions about their size and power, they can’t always rely on backup from the trade groups they’ve showered with money over the years.

The result has been only a muted response from ITI, whose executive committee includes companies like IBM, Oracle and Salesforce that aren’t facing antitrust scrutiny — and, in some cases, have had major beefs against their bigger rivals.

ITI’s leaders are “responding to what I’m sure is enormous pressure from four companies in particular” to defend them, one of the people who described the call said,while balancing a “desire of the other companies to not get in the middle of someone else’s antitrust debate.”

The Internet Association, the industry’s most prominent trade group in Washington, has stayed even quieter on the antitrust issue in the face of discord among its members, which include Google and its antagonists Yelp and TripAdvisor, as well as Amazon and rival eBay. Yelp has lodged complaints with competition regulators in the U.S. and Europe for years arguing that Google prioritizes its own products in search results.

“IA operates on consensus, which enables us to speak in a unified voice on a wide range of policies that are critical to the future of the internet,” including online liability and privacy issues, said the group’s spokesperson Noah Theran. “Because of this, IA does not engage on competition policy.”

But another industry official said tech could use some solidarity. The growing antitrust talk in Washington has “taken on an anti-tech tone in general” that affects the entire industry, the person said, and large trade groups are justified in “raising those questions” about whether the antitrust reviews are going too far.

The issue is playing out as the tech giants rack up a growing list of investigations by Congress, the Trump administration and the states. The House antitrust panel, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and a number of state attorneys general are looking into whether the companies are using their size to unfairly compete in their respective markets. The issue has also loomed large on the Democratic campaign trail, as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pledge antitrust enforcers in their prospective administrations would break up the nation’s tech behemoths into smaller companies.

ITI has waded gingerly into the antitrust debate, trying to avoid picking sides in a fight that some members view as a threat to the entire tech sector and others see as aimed at four specific companies. In public statements and in private meetings with lawmakers, the group has stuck to arguing that antitrust reviews should be narrowly focused rather than demonizing big companies simply for their size or attacking the tech industry as a whole.

“Because antitrust law is such an important body of law, particularly for large companies who we happen to represent, it’s important to us to play that education role without getting involved in any disputes that our member companies may have,” Oxman said in an interview.

Such disputes have multiplied in recent years.

Oracle has fought high-profile battles against both Google, which it sued over alleged patent violations in the search giant’s Android operating system, and Amazon, which it accused of benefiting from a tainted bidding process for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract. All three companies are members of ITI.

And top executives don’t always hide the tensions. In a recent Recode interview, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman gleefully welcomed government scrutiny of his fellow IA members and competitors Google and Facebook.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the tech sector’s divisions are not uncommon among industries with a growing presence in Washington, as lobbying on a wider range of policy matters reveals issues where companies’ desires are not identical.

“In those instances, the industry association may have to choose between taking sides — and risk creating rifts within their membership — or sitting on the sidelines of an intra-industry debate,” she said. “It’s bound to frustrate companies that pay money to an entity to represent their interests when that entity can’t or won’t go to bat for them.”

Tech companies have shelled out big money to myriad trade associations in Washington, D.C., that frequently serve as their first defenders when lawmakers and regulators come hollering. The groups are deeply engaged in fending off or shaping potential regulation, including data privacy legislation and proposals to amend the critical law that shields websites from liability over user-generated content. They’ve also, at times, backed lawsuits on issues like net neutrality where their members are more aligned.

“The associations are useful on issues where the industry is more united,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America and author of “The Business of America is Lobbying.” “There’s a strategic value in maintaining a broad association because lawmakers generally are more likely to respond when the industry is united than when it is divided.”

But the groups’ silence on antitrust is all the more striking given the recent pileup of investigations and lawmaker complaints. The DOJ said last month its antitrust review is focusing on dominant companies in online search, social media and e-commerce — a not-so-veiled reference to Google, Facebook and Amazon, respectively.

The FTC is also conducting an antitrust probe into “social networking or social media services, digital advertising, and/or mobile or online applications” at Facebook, the social media behemoth disclosed in a recent regulatory filing. The agency has also subpoenaed sales data from third parties who sell goods on Amazon as part of a potential probe of the e-commerce juggernaut, trade publication MLex reported last month.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are not without resources, even as some of their associations keep a low profile. The four firms shelled out $25 million in the first six months of the year on nearly 300 in-house and outside lobbyists to shape policy on Capitol Hill and within regulatory agencies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They also spread money around Washington think tanks and advocacy groups that often amplify their policy positions. Some of those organizations, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, are coming to the companies’ defense.

As the antitrust heat rises, the small, right-leaning trade association NetChoice, which counts Facebook and Google as members, has emerged as one of the tech industry’s most vocal defenders. Carl Szabo, the vice president and general counsel of the three-person operation, said antitrust falls well within the group’s mission to “keep the internet open for free expression and free enterprise.”

After the DOJ announced its review, NetChoice called on the department to “resist the siren song of populism and only investigate actual evidence of consumer harm.” It also slammed House Democrats as “hypocritical” for complaining about the power of tech companies while seeking an antitrust exemption for big news publishers to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook over ad sales.

Industry trade groups shouldn’t shy away from the fight, Szabo said.

“I would hope that all associations and all business would oppose a movement away from objective, data-based analysis of antitrust and all associations and businesses would oppose the weaponization of antitrust,” Szabo said. “While such actions may help them today, it can definitely be used against them tomorrow.”

The head of the Consumer Technology Association, Gary Shapiro, has also defended the big tech companies, as has the Computer and Communications Industry Association. Both groups represent Facebook, Google and Amazon, among others. A CCIA representative testified at a House hearing that any antitrust review should consider the industry’s benefits to consumers and the economy.

CCIA President Ed Black said his group has made competition issues a focus for 47 years and at times lost members that disagreed with its stances on pending mergers or antitrust lawsuits.

“It’s one of the reasons most trade associations have not gone into antitrust issues,” Black said. “We’ve had somewhat of the field to ourselves because we’re willing to take the risk to defend innovation.”

This article was originally published at Politico on August 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Overly covers technology policy and politics for POLITICO with a special focus on the industry’s effort to influence decisions in Washington. He previously spent seven years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. Steven holds a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree from Columbia University, where he studied as a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism. A native of the Washington metro region, Steven currently resides in the District.

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From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers Is More Dystopian Than You Think

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thor bensonYou’ve been fired. According to your employer’s data, your facial expressions showed you were insubordinate and not trustworthy. You also move your hands at a rate that is considered substandard. Other companies you may want to work for could receive this data, making it difficult for you to find other work in this field.

That may sound like a scenario straight out of a George Orwell novel, but it’s the future many American workers could soon be facing.

In early February, media outlets reported that Amazon had received a patent for ultrasonic wristbands that could track the movement of warehouse workers’ hands during their shifts. If workers’ hands began moving in the wrong direction, the wristband would buzz, issuing an electronic corrective. If employed, this technology could easily be used to further surveil employees who already work under intense supervision.

Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything from how quickly and effectively they stock shelves to how they report theft. The system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.

UPS drivers, who often operate individually on the road, are now becoming increasingly surveilled. Sensors in every UPS truck track when drivers’ seatbelts are put on, when doors open and close and when the engines start in order to monitor employee productivity at all times.

The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions. The company claims that this innovation, which monitors and analyzes workers’ facial movements throughout the work day, is being used for research and to inform best practices on the job. Other companies are also taking interest in this kind of mood-observing technology, from Bank of America to Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.

These developments are part of a larger trend of workers being watched and judged—often at jobs that offer low pay and demand long hours. Beyond simply tracking worker performance, it is becoming more common for companies to monitor the emails and phone calls their employees make, analyzing personal traits along with output.

Some companies are now using monitoring techniques—referred to as “people analytics”—to learn as much as they can about you, from your communication patterns to what types of websites you visit to how often you use the bathroom. This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, as they work with the constant knowledge that their boss is aware of their every behavior—and able to use that against them as they see fit.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute at Cornell University, tells In These Times that the level of surveillance workers are facing is increasing exponentially.

“If you look at what some people call ‘people analytics,’ it’s positively frightening,” Maltby says. “People analytics devices get how often you talk, the tone of your voice, where you are every single second you’re at work, your body language, your facial expressions and something called ‘patterns of interaction.’” He explains that some of these devices even record what employees say at work.

According to some experts, this high level of employee surveillance may actually harm the companies that use these techniques.

“In general, people experience more stress when they feel that someone is looking over their shoulder, real or virtual,” Michael Childers, director at the School for Workers, tells In These Times. “There is a large body of research documenting that stressful workplaces can potentially lead to many problems that reduce company profits, including increased turnover, more sick days used, higher workplace compensation costs, and ironically, even lower productivity.”

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, tells In These Times that this type of surveillance “deepens the antagonism, mutual suspicion, and hostility of employer relative to employee. It degrades worker morale and will probably fail—leading employers to conclude not that such surveillance is a bad idea, but rather than they need to automate to get rid of workers altogether.”

While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

“The fight we’re gearing up for is [tracking] behavior off duty,” Maltby says. “Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

One the of the fears that labor and privacy advocates hold is that, over time, workers could get used to these types of invasions, and begin accepting them as a normal part of the job.

“The first time people hear about the newest privacy invasion, they get extremely angry, but eventually they just get used to it,” Maltby says. For example, at many jobs drug tests are now seen as standard, despite the fact that they invade employees’ private lives by monitoring their behaviors outside of work.

At a time of soaring inequality, low-wage workers are bearing the brunt of efforts to increase productivity and profits. The rise of these new tracking techniques show that companies are moving toward increasing their control over the lives of their employees.

While workers at the bottom of the wage scale may be the first to face such dystopian working conditions, other industries could soon embrace them. If we don’t want to live and work under the constant supervision of a far-away boss, now is the time to speak up and push back.

This article was originally published in In These Times on June 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Thor Benson is a traveling writer, currently located in Los Angeles, Calif. Benson was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His journalism has been featured in: The Atlantic, Wired, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Slate, Salon, Vice, ATTN:, Mic, In These Times, Paste, The New Republic, The Verge, Fast Company, Truthdig and elsewhere. He has been interviewed on The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Ring of Fire, HuffPost Live, The Lip, The Young Turks, in upcoming documentaries and elsewhere. 


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The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

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On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.


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Facebook’s gender bias goes so deep it’s in the code

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A hurricane has been brewing at Facebook.

After years of suspicion, a veteran female Facebook engineer decided to evaluate what if any gaps there were in how female and male engineers’ work was treated.

She did it “so that we can have an insight into how the review process impacts people in various groups,” the Wall Street Journal learned exclusively.

Her analysis, conducted in September, found that female engineers’ work was rejected 35 percent more than their male counterparts based on five years of open code-review data. Women also waited 3.9 percent longer to have their code accepted and got 8.2 percent more questions and comments about their work.

Only 13 percent of Facebook’s engineers are women, 17 percent across all tech roles.

The identity of the engineer is unknown, but her findings sparked a whirlwind discussion of gender bias inside the social network after it was released last year. A group of senior Facebook officials led by Facebook’s head of infrastructure, Jay Parikh, conducted their own review of the engineer’s analysis and concluded that the rejection gap was because of the engineer’s rank rather than gender.

Facebook confirmed Parikh’s findings, calling the engineer’s data incomplete, the Wall Street Journal reported. Parikh said in an internal report revealing his analysis that while the gender component wasn’t “statistically significant” it was “still observable and felt by many of you,” and urged employees to take the company’s voluntary implicit bias training.

The report is the latest incidence of the tech industry’s rampant diversity and inclusion problem. In recent years, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have tried to tackle this by releasing annual diversity reports, which have shown marginal improvements in racial and gender disparities.

But Silicon Valley’s gender problem goes beyond the numbers. Facebook is the second major tech company this year to have potentially damning evidence of gender bias exposed by an employee. Earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler detailed her experiences with sexual harassment and stalled career path at the company. Fowler’s story ballooned into a media firestorm, one that Uber still hasn’t recovered from.

Neither of Facebook’s analyses and methodologies have been independently verified, but the preliminary results and Facebook’s response fall in line with how companies have previously dealt with allegations of sexism. Past surveys and studies have found that men in tech often don’t think there’s a gender problem in the industry. And when women report incidents of sexual harassment as culturally pervasive, men have said they were unaware.

Hopefully, Facebook’s voluntary bias training, which stresses bias’ impact and how to get rid of it, will become mandatory.

This post appeared originally in Think Progress on May 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.


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Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

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arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.

Skepticism

People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have not followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.


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Unemployment: Why Won’t Congress Talk About It!?

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Change to WinAn interesting look at the unemployment rate. “What is currently a temporary long-term unemployment problem runs the risk of morphing into a permanent and costly increase in the unemployment rate” unless Congress takes action to create jobs. 

Why the Unemployment Rate Is So High – New York Times

Unemployment claims have increased slightly. “The Labor Department says applications rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000, the most in five weeks.”

Unemployment claims rise slightly in latest week – USA Today

“We need to avoid a lost generation of young people who will be playing economic catch-up their whole lives. We cannot stop pressing our leaders to help struggling poor and middle-class Americans.”

Crowdsourcing our economic recovery – CNN 

Even though the economy is improving, we need to do more to ensure the long term unemployed get back on their feet. Long term unemployment makes it harder and harder to provide for one’s family, and causes dramatic increases in mental illness. It’s time Washington gets busy putting people back to work. 

Long-Term Unemployed Winning Jobs Or Giving Up? – Huffington Post

This article was originally posted by ChangeToWin on January 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Change to Win is an organization created by over 5.5 million workers – if corporations can join together to hire an army of lobbyists, working and middle class Americans must also band together and restore balance by making sure we have a strong voice and a seat at the table again.

(Colleen Gartner is an intern at Workplace Fairness.)


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Workers Cheer Living Wage Victory in Austin

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Barbara DohertyConstruction workers and others in the Austin, Texas, area are celebrating a coalition victory this week after Travis County commissioners approved a first-ever economic development policy that includes a living wage requirement.

The policy requires contractors asking for tax incentives to move into the county to pay all employees at least $11 per hour. It’s a significant improvement over the prevailing construction hourly wage of $7.50.

On the same day the county provision passed, a subcommittee of the Austin City Council passed a similar policy, which will come to the full council in the coming months. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, both the city and county have been criticized about generous tax incentives offered in recent years to major companies such as Apple and Marriott.

Along with faith-based and student organizations, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, the Laborers (LIUNA), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFSCME Local 1624, Education Austin (AFT) and Texas State Employees Union (TSEU)/CWA Local 6186 participated in the yearlong campaign spearheaded by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The 1,000-member WDP has worked for 10 years on wage theft and other workers’ rights issues.

Austin Interfaith and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were among others that supported the campaign.

“Really, what this means is construction workers are starting to have a say in their working conditions and their pay,” WDP organizer Greg Casar told a celebratory crowd after the county commissioners voted.

This post was originally posted on November 30, 2012 at AFL-CIO NOW. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Barbara Doherty: My dad drove a laundry delivery truck in San Francisco and I came to appreciate unions sitting in the waiting room at the Teamsters vision center there. More than 30 years ago, I joined the international SEIU publications staff (under the union’s legendary, feisty president, George Hardy). Living in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., over the years, I have contributed countless news and feature articles, as well as editing, to the publications and websites of unions in the public and private sectors and the construction trades.


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