November 21, 2019

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka Calls for Greater Worker Say in Technology Decisions

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

Today’s future of work debate isn’t just about technology; it’s also about who gets to influence decisions about the future.  That was one of the themes of a speech AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka gave at the MIT Sloan School of Management on November 20, 2019.

“At its core, I believe the future of work debate is about voice,” said Trumka, whose organization, the AFL-CIO, is an American labor federation that includes 55 unions and 12.5 million members. “Who has a say in the development of and deployment of technology?...Who decides how the benefits of technology are going to be distributed, at the micro level and at the societal level?”

“Sometimes, it seems like we’re quickly headed towards a future where the choices are made exclusively by billionaires, where the future of work is determined behind closed doors, in rooms where workers are not allowed in,” Trumka continued. However, he noted that rising U.S. worker activism in the past few years—from teacher strikes to a walkout by Google workers—gives grounds for a more optimistic picture of the working future.

“American workers, particularly young people, are tired of being silenced,” Trumka said. “We’re hungry for…connection to each other, so that we can influence the decisions that will shape our future.”

Citing a study that found that many U.S. millennials don’t think it’s essential to live in a democracy, Trumka argued that today’s high levels of income inequality have left many young adults disillusioned with our political system. He told the audience, many of whom were MBA students, that many people in their generation are “starting to equate capitalism and democracy with insecurity and poverty.”

In that context, Trumka argued, giving workers more of a say in the way technology is deployed is essential to democracy’s future. “If we want to secure a democracy and [a] prosperous future, well, working people have to have a real seat at the table when it comes to the design and the deployment of technology,” he said. He added that his visit to MIT is part of a process in which the AFL-CIO is seeking to set up an institute to connect the labor movement with technology expertise at institutions like MIT. “The goal is to help us gain the knowledge and capacity needed to engage broadly in the complex innovation process, so technology can be used as a force for good and not greed,” he said.

Trumka called for an inclusive labor movement “where no one gets left behind”—one that includes advocating for LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and strengthened employment laws to combat discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  “Technological change should mean rising wages, falling hours, and better lives; that’s something all of us want,” he said. “And if that isn’t happening, then we have to point a finger, not at science or technology, but at the domination of the wealthy over our economy and our political world.”

The November 20th event was sponsored by the MIT Leadership and Human Capital Club; the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan; the MIT Leadership Center; and the MIT Sloan Office of the Dean. Trumka was introduced by Thomas Kochan, the George M. Bunker Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and a member of the faculty steering committee for the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. After Trumka spoke, three MIT Sloan MBA students from the MIT Leadership and Human Capital Club facilitated a Q&A session with Trumka and Liz Shuler, the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. 


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