This week, the delivery giant UPS seems to have narrowly avoided a strike by its 340,000 Teamster employees that would have halted operations for one of the nation’s most significant avenues of commerce, reaching a final agreement after months of negotiations. The deal must still be ratified by the members, meaning the specter of a strike hasn’t totally dissipated.
If the Teamsters did strike, they would join the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, the writers and actors that power the nation’s film and television industries. The United Auto Workers seem to be teetering on the edge of their own strike, as do a number of other unions. One of my own unions, representing New York University adjuncts, authorized a strike last year, though we never called it.
A good number of commentators have been striving to explain the proliferating strikes and the broader surge in labor organizing. Many land on highly technical explanations downwind of economic theory — rising basic costs like healthcare and the failure of productivity gains and corporate profits to trickle down to workers has created a system of financial precarity; gig work has destroyed the expected long-term stability of a workplace; the encroachment of corporate consultant and MBA types has relegated labor to a minimizable line item on a spreadsheet; and so on.
This is all, cumulatively, true enough, and undoubtedly a driver of this sudden affinity for labor action. Still, these trends have been manifesting for years or even decades (some might trace their genesis back to the Reagan era). Why now? I’d argue that this is all largely less about the past than it is about the future, and particularly the twin trends of work-on-demand and growing pervasiveness of artificial intelligence in every industry and every sector.
It’s something of a dark joke that people don’t have jobs anymore, they have tasks, which they accomplish as putative freelancers even when they have one employer. A precursor to this labor plight was, aptly, the ride-hailing app drivers’ fights to be seen as what many of them actually were: employees at a huge corporation, not independent contractors who were welcome to power the company’s operations, but not entitled to a say in its shifting business strategies. They were expected to assume all the risk. That approach to doing business — all the responsibilities of being an employee, the lack of benefits and instability of being a contractor — has since spread to many other industries, and that’s before the automation.
In the past couple years or so, A.I. went from something that was talked about in a largely speculative way, apart from some practical and relatively niche applications, to being ubiquitous in the culture- largely due to newly released, commercially available systems that could ingest and replicate both visual art (think Dall-E or Midjourney) and writing (large language models like ChatGPT and Bard). For years, futurists, economists, and labor theorists have been discussing whether and when neural networks and A.I. systems could credibly compete on what was considered that most human of attributes: creativity, the ability to take something beyond its component parts, solve problems, express things.
To paraphrase a saying about bankruptcy, it happened slowly, then all at once. These speculations became cold reality as people marveled at the output of the new A.I. programs. Some creative professionals have reportedly already lost their jobs to the robot’s encroachment. A lot of it was hype — and let’s not forget that the “luminaries” hawking these glorified prediction algorithms are counting on a self-reinforcing hype cycle that will grant their systems a veneer of both supremacy and inevitability — but the tools are, I’ll admit, impressive.
Pose a question to ChatGPT and it’ll answer in perfectly serviceable prose and with a disorienting self-assuredness, despite often being wrong. Is it a real replacement for human writers and artists? No. Apart from being forcefully wrong, its “writing” is formulaic and dry, and the system actually appears to be getting considerably worse over time at certain kinds of problem-solving as it encounters the messy data of reality. But that doesn’t necessarily matter much to large companies hoping to appease investors and please shareholders. If someone peddles a technology that is only 60% as good as a human worker but costs 5% as much, many companies will just run with it.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most publicized planks of SAG’s dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), one which immediately preceded the calling of the strike, was around the industry association’s proposal to scan background actors’ faces and digitally recreate their likenesses. The studios presented this as an opportunity for actors to cut down on their workload, but what it really is is an opportunity for studios to cut down their need for actors. Writers probably realize A.I. is coming for them, too.
It’s worth emphasizing that not just purely creative jobs are in the crosshairs. Some basic level of creative problem-solving forms the basis for many white-collar jobs — from lawyers to chemists to software engineers themselves — as well as blue-collar jobs like drivers whose task is to navigate around obstacles. It’s a a specter that obviously threatens the aforementioned ride-hailing drivers as well as the UPS Teamsters. Also among the sticking points in the Teamsters’ drawn-out negotiations with UPS (aside from a lack of air conditioning in the vans, which, yeah, not great) was pay and benefits for part-time workers, who make up over half the Teamsters at the company.
This is why some people are really seeing this labor organizing and these strikes not as isolated circumstances affecting individual sectors, but as a kind of first skirmish in a grander struggle over the future of labor writ large, and how it will contend with the contemporaneous threats of unstable, automated work and A.I. intrusion. Put another way, it’s a struggle over what it even means to labor, to be a part of a workforce. We should all be watching closely.