In the opening scenes of Blade Runner, IRobot, or any futuristic dystopian film where humans are set to confront robots as the future rule makers and breakers of planet earth, we are often introduced to a context where robots are ubiquitous: they fill the landscape, they are the main protagonists, they are the new lovers, the new friends, and the new workers.
What is often missing from these opening scenes and frankly most of the movies are answers to the following:
- What role did government, business, or people’s movements play in landing us in this new robot reality?
- How did we let it get so far that a people-centered government or economy are no longer options for those navigating the robotic terrain?
- Why is a robot take-over an inevitable end?
At The Workers Lab, we’re seeing a lot of doom and gloom in the media coverage on shifts in the labor market due to automation. A handful of articles that come to mind are the colorfully titled:
- How To Make American Robots Great Again
- Babysitter Robots & Population Growth
- At BlackRock, Machines Are Rising Over Managers to Pick Stocks
- Robots Are Winning The Race for American Jobs
Yes, working people are affected in very real ways by emerging technologies. Yes, if left unchecked and unmanaged, working people will bear the brunt of this shift. No, this is not as inevitable as the dystopian futuristic films would have you to believe. This fatalism is far too simplistic. It leaves too much to chance and absolves us all of the work necessary to imagine and create a set of solutions that center and benefit working people.
Instead of throwing our hands up, we need to change the lattice of supports, protections, and standards for working people. We believe that in this political and economic moment there is a great opening to create a new set of rules for how work is organized, how workers are valued, and how government provides a whole safety-net for all of us. We believe that we can reset the norms so that working people are not ancillary or left behind, but are core to the future of our economy and country.
The current conversation about the Future of Work is organized with three major chapters:
ONCE UPON A TIME: There were workers who received wages, benefits, and protections because of their status as W2 workers.
…THEN TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES ARRIVED: And all of those W2 jobs became 1099 or contractor jobs with no stability in earnings, no protections or benefits so we needed to create Portable Benefits.
…AND LEFT UNCHECKED, EMPLOYERS DECIDED TO: Invest in the automation of everything. Robots built things and cared for people while people who once worked waited at home to receive their Universal Basic Income check.
But is this trajectory inevitable?
This leapfrogging towards the end of work leaves way too much on the table. We are leaving behind the billions of dollars spent on workforce development, training, and education. We are leaving behind worker organizations and collective action by working people that have been cornerstones of our democracy. We are overlooking the role of government which should be to regulate our economy for the benefit of the people and ensure the well-being of all by establishing and managing a robust social safety-net. So when, for example, an industry that relies on drivers like taxis and mass transit is automated, government should be positioned to respond, with tools like a proposed tax on robots in order to fund workforce development training programs to ensure targeted training for existing and future hiring needs.
In this moment we are at a critical juncture. One path leads to the eventual dominance of our robotic overlords. The other path, though, is far more messy, complex, and promises more for working people. This is the path we at The Workers Lab are choosing. We invite you to join us as we explore what the 21st Century Social Contract for Working People could look like and what role key actors in our economy, government, and social movements can play in establishing it.
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