Art: Charter

With Labor Day behind us, the Hollywood writers’ strike has surpassed four full months, while SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, is approaching two months of its own strike.

Some of the most contentious demands from both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are related to the use of generative artificial intelligence in production, including using AI to generate performances based on actors’ likeness and embedding AI into the writers’ room. In a moment where organizations across industries are grappling with how best to integrate AI into their own workplaces, leaders are closely watching the outcome of the first high-profile contract fight surrounding the technology.

But for those looking for a playbook on steering workforces through technological change, there’s already a clear lesson from the experiences of workers in Hollywood and beyond: Worker voice can be a critical part of getting it right. If allowed to shape AI adoption as a partner, workers can help organizations use new technologies to improve jobs and increase productivity, but employers have to start listening.

The story of workers and technology is often told as a tragedy: A new kind of technology comes in—a mechanized loom, a typesetting machine, an industrial robot—and displaces wide swaths of people in one fell swoop. These narratives sometimes make allusions to the folk hero John Henry, a Black steel-driver who challenged a new, steam-powered drill introduced by the railroad company to replace workers, only to have his heart give out moments after winning the race against the machine.

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But there’s a danger in these David-and-Goliath narratives that pit workers against technology— namely, that they make it more difficult for employers and workers to move forward collaboratively in figuring out the best way for it to be used. “We’re not against the technology,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, national executive director and chief negotiator at SAG-AFTRA, who describes the unions’ goal as “establish[ing] the rules of the road” to incorporate AI in a way that respects workers’ autonomy and dignity rather than replacing them.

For SAG-AFTRA, that means establishing a method of informed consent and fair compensation for AI-generated “digital replicas” based on a performer’s voice, likeness, or performance, rather than allowing studios to reuse actors’ likenesses indefinitely after compensating them for only the time it took to scan their image. Similarly, the WGA’s demands allow for the adoption of AI in writers’ rooms, including screenwriters using platforms like ChatGPT as virtual writing assistants, with guardrails in place, like restrictions on using AI to write or rewrite literary material and the use of writers’ work to train AI algorithms.

Once you reframe the conversation to recognize workers’ agency in the process of technology adoption, there’s no shortage of examples of workers using their collective experiences to shape new modes of working that protect workers, preserve quality jobs, and promote increased innovation and productivity.

A 2020 working paper from the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center outlines some of the ways that unions have done this, historically and currently. The authors highlight a few common themes among many of the most successful campaigns addressing technological changes, including:

  • Collaboration and codetermination between workers and management.
  • Assurances of economic security, whether through protections from displacement or job degradation or retraining programs.
  • Measures for transparency from management about frameworks and policies.

Hospitality union UNITE HERE, for example, has successfully negotiated to create a process through which workers and employers discuss and bargain over technological changes. A 2018 contract specifically calls out the necessity of information-sharing and timely discussion in advance of any changes, as well as provisions for severance, job retraining, and placement in a new position in the case of workers being displaced by technology.

Amanda Ballantyne, the director of the AFL-CIO Technology Institute, argues that there’s one key reason worker voice should drive technology adoption: “We think of workers as experts in technology because they’re the end users.” That on-the-ground experience gives them valuable knowledge about which tools make their jobs better and which just waste their time, she explains. It’s a sentiment echoed by University of Pennsylvania professor Ethan Mollick in a recent essay: “The innovation groups and strategy councils inside organizations can dictate policy, but they can’t figure out how to use AI to actually get work, only the workers, experts at their own jobs, know that,” he writes.

In other industries, policymakers have acted proactively to ensure the inclusion of worker expertise in development of new technologies. The CHIPS Act, the federal law that provides $280 billion in new funding for the domestic development and production of semiconductors, encourages research grant recipients to involve worker organizations in the developing proposals that bring frontline workers into laboratories and researchers to factory floors.

For leaders considering next steps on AI adoption, inviting worker voice into the conversation could mean working collaboratively with organized labor in unionized workplaces, creating panels and focus groups, fielding employee surveys, or running trials with employees who will be the end users of the technology. Some organizations have created internal task forces with representatives from all departments and levels; the educational tech company Skillsoft has invited employees to present new ideas related to AI adoption during “innovation sprints,” with cash prizes for winning ideas.

These kinds of collaborative frameworks are a win-win for employers and their workers: Organizations can harness the expertise of workers to continually innovate amid a rapid pace of technological development, while ensuring that those workers using new technologies will maintain good quality jobs. Those employers that lock workers out of the process in favor of a purely top-down approach: Very recent history suggests that an empowered workforce is ready to hold you accountable.

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