How technologies are helping shape surge of worker strikes in US

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(NEW YORK) — A surge of work stoppages this year involving hundreds of thousands of employees has drawn attention to bold demands over wage increases and benefits as unions pursue raises that outpace rapid price hikes.

However, at a moment when a tight job market affords unions considerable leverage, many workers out on strike have also advocated terms for the adoption of technology that could shape their workplaces for years or even decades, according to ABC News’ interviews with academics who study technology and the workplace..

Hollywood writers and actors on the picket lines have called for fair treatment as studios shift to streaming and incorporate artificial intelligence. Autoworkers have demanded a transition to electric vehicles that ensure employees keep their jobs. And hotel workers out on strike are asking for automatic digital tipping and the income gains it promises.

Corporate Amazon employees walked off the job in June in part over the company’s mandatory return-to-office policy, advocating for remote work enabled by the wide use of videoconference software. While workers at a train manufacturer Wabtec in Erie, Pennsylvania ended a two-month strike this week that included calls for greater investment in green technology for sustainable locomotives.

At a Starbucks near Trenton, New Jersey, the company’s mobile app adds stress to every shift, De Rivera, a barista, told ABC News.

Rivera dreads the moment when a flood of orders through the app leads to stickers that she must print, place on cups and fulfill.

“I can’t really describe the stress and chaos and frenzy that happens when we’re just getting stickers on stickers on stickers,” Rivera, who says she receives $15 an hour, told ABC News. “It’s devastating.”

Rivera and colleagues at her store have carried out single-day strikes on three separate occasions this year in an effort to pressure the company, which she says has yet to bargain over contract proposals more than a year after the store voted to unionize.

When the workers do reach the bargaining table, Rivera said, she thinks proposals limiting use of the mobile app should receive the same amount of attention as issues like pay raises and health benefits.

“Technology brings a whole other layer into how difficult my job is to do every day,” Rivera said. “I’d love to work that out and have a seat at the table to talk about it.”

Starbucks Workers United, the union that represents employees at more than 350 stores nationwide, has put forward an online set of “core demands.” The list calls for a “safe and respectful working environment” but does not mention the Starbucks app, which was launched nationwide in 2015.

A Starbucks spokesperson told ABC News that negotiators met with union representatives in November 2022, but could not begin discussing proposals because the union sought conditions for bargaining with which the company disagreed, such as a virtual broadcast of the discussions.

The Starbucks app affords customers a convenient way to order before they arrive at the store, the spokesperson added, noting that the technology is designed to stagger orders in a fashion that offer workers sufficient time to handle a busy period.

As of last month, roughly 323,000 workers had gone out on strike this year, amounting to the largest year of strikes since 2000, leaving out a high-water mark in 2018 and 2019 when public school teachers and government workers walked off the job in droves, according to a Washington Post analysis of Bloomberg Law data.

“Strikes are most saliently motivated by wage issues and working conditions, and you can’t fault workers for that,” Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of “Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity,” told ABC News.

“I see technology as an even more central issue because it will have much greater consequences for the future,” Acemoglu added.

In a previous statement to ABC News, Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser said the company stands by its decision to bring corporate employees back to the office.

“We understand that it’s going to take time to adjust back to being in the office more and there are a lot of teams at the company working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for employees,” Glasser said.

Wabtec told ABC News in a statement: “The company is glad the [union] shares its passion for a sustainable future and is actively developing green technologies for the industries we serve. Wabtec is an industry leader in developing and building sustainable solutions such as low- and zero-emission locomotives.”

The wave of work stoppages, which follows an uptick in strikes last year, has coincided with a tight job market that arose during the pandemic, forcing companies to compete for a relatively small pool of available workers and in turn boosting employee leverage, Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told ABC News.

“The labor market is strong and the unemployment rate is low,” Katz said. “That has shifted bargaining power to labor.”

While the pandemic-induced labor shortage amplified worker power, however, it also accelerated the adoption of technology that threatens to replace or sideline workers, Acemoglu said.

“When workers were in short supply and couldn’t get to work, there was a greater need for automation,” Acemoglu added.

Another trend that took hold during the pandemic: an explosion in the popularity of streaming TV and movies.

The ongoing actors’ strike centers on a dispute over compensation, especially in light of that industry-wide shift toward streaming that has changed the way performers receive residuals, or royalty payments.

Previously, a popular show meant sizable and consistent residual payments over the ensuing years. In streaming, however, those checks are far smaller, according to the actors’ union Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA.

In addition, actors have expressed significant concerns with the potential use of artificial intelligence as a substitute for use of a performer’s authentic appearance.

On a union podcast last month, SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher called AI a “deadly cocktail” that resulted from “Wall Street, greed, technology, and whizz kids that I am not seeing exemplify a great deal of empathy.”

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers pointed to a previous statement: “The AMPTP has been clear from the outset that its goal is to arrive at a contract that is fair and equitable for SAG-AFTRA members.”

“The offer that SAG-AFTRA walked away from on July 12 is worth more than $1 billion in wage increases, pension & health contributions and residual increases and includes first-of-their-kind protections over its three-year term, including expressly with respect to AI,” the statement added.

The offer made by the AMPTP in July featured a “groundbreaking AI proposal” that “protects performers’ digital likenesses, including a requirement for performer’s consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance,” the group said that month.

On an earnings call in May, before the actors strike, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “It’s pretty clear that AI developments represent some pretty interesting opportunities for us and some substantial benefits.”

Two months later, Iger told CNBC that the overall contract demands made by the actors and writers were “not realistic.” Disney is the parent company of ABC News.

The Hollywood strikes underscore the role of technology as a force that not only affects an employee’s immediate workplace but establishes the fundamental industry landscape in which worker advocacy unfolds, Katz said.

“The fact that there’s so much technological change, including AI and streaming, makes it so unpredictable and uncertain as to exactly how it will affect power relations,” he said.

“It’s that incredible uncertainty that makes it hard for the parties to reach an agreement,” Katz added.

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