3 lessons from the Future of Workers summit

February 12, 2020

When working people have a seat at the table, we all win: we build a more inclusive economy, we strengthen our democracy, and we can shape a future where we get a fair return on our work and more time with our families.

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about the “future of work” — how robots, artificial intelligence, the gig economy, and other new technologies and business models could change our jobs. But while we’ve heard from CEOs, pundits, and presidential candidates, the people who will be most affected by these trends have largely been cut out of the conversation.

That’s why this week, Working Partnerships USA and the UC Berkeley Labor Center brought together working Californians, labor and community organizers, policymakers, scholars, and advocates for a daylong summit in Sacramento.

We discussed the issues facing people working in rapidly changing industries like transportation, retail, food service, and care work. We heard insightful keynotes from Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) team, and Labor Secretary Julie Su. We learned directly from workers and organizers on the frontlines of groundbreaking campaigns. And we explored steps policymakers and advocates can take to ensure a future of work that works for all of us.

Here are three big themes that emerged from the conversation:

1. Robots won’t take all our jobs. But the ways in which corporations use new technologies could make many jobs less stable, lower paid, and subject to constant pressure to work harder.

For decades, right-wing attacks on unions and the exploitative business models of the gig economy have chipped away at the economic and political power of working people. In this context, the introduction of new workplace technologies threatens to worsen structural inequities.

In industries ranging from warehouses to childcare, researchers and workers described how we’re going down a path of continuous surveillance and brutal speed-ups, of employers using our data to increase their profits, and of skilled careers reduced to low-wage gig work.

Melissa, a Walmart associate and leader with United for Respect, described how Walmart’s task management software imposes strict deadlines, no matter the realities of the situation — and the corporation punishes people if they don’t hit those times.

Vanessa, an Instacart shopper and organizer with Gig Workers Rising, talked about how Instacart has slashed pay over and over, pushing shoppers into poverty while paying its CEO millions.

2. Technology can improve our jobs, lift up our communities, and give us more time with our families — but only if working people have a real voice.

At the same time, technology also has great potential to improve our lives. If working people have a meaningful role in guiding innovation, we can make sure productivity gains are broadly shared, we get a fair return on our work, and we have a voice in our jobs.

We discussed models for bringing workers and employers together to collaboratively use technology. Johnny Gallegos, a former UPS driver and business agent with Teamsters Local 287, told the story of how drivers won protections against being disciplined based solely on data from sensors in their trucks, and instead made sure that technology is used to improve the health and safety of drivers on the job.

Johnny Gallegos, a former UPS driver and business agent with Teamsters Local 287, told the story of how drivers won protections against being disciplined based solely on data from sensors in their trucks, and instead made sure that technology is used to improve the health and safety of drivers on the job.

3. From innovative organizing to forward-looking public policy proposals, we have promising models to drive worker-centered strategies and solutions.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the summit was hearing from worker leaders, organizers, and policymakers who are showing the way forward.

Vanessa described how gig workers are using technology to build community and solidarity among workers who don't have a workplace.

Vanessa described how gig workers are using technology to build community and solidarity among workers who don't have a workplace.

Sam, a line cook for Flagship facility services at Facebook and member of Unite Here Local 19, shared how winning a union means he can think about one day retiring and spending time with grandkids.

We learned about crafting municipal standards boards for domestic workers, challenging nefarious surveillance in the workplace, and bringing more workers into the movement through outreach programs against sexual harassment in the janitorial industry. We were inspired by campaigns that are taking on oppressive monopolies, pioneering new organizing strategies, and winning strategic public policy fights.

Vanessa described how gig workers are using technology to build community and solidarity among workers who don't have a workplace.

We’re so grateful to everyone who joined us at the Summit, to our partners who helped make this possible, and most especially to all the workers who shared their experiences, hopes, and dreams for the future.

2020 presents a rare opportunity for working people and our movement to lay the groundwork for the future of work we believe is possible. We’re excited to see what the coming months bring!

Derecka Mehrens is Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA. Ken Jacobs is Chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.