April / May / June 2017
Newsletter Volume 62, Number 2

The robots are coming;
the Teamsters are preparing!

This month, WIRED Magazine interviewed Joint Council 7 President Rome Aloise about self-driving cars and trucks. The industry calls these “autonomous vehicles” or “AVs” for short. Industry experts estimate that 4 million transportation workers in the United States are going to lose their jobs in the next 5-20 years.

Right now, these cars and trucks are being tested in California. Like most technological innovations, Silicon Valley is at the center of the action. Google started a brand new company called Waymo in Mountain View. Ford has a facility in Palo Alto. Tesla is building them in Fremont. General Motors has partnered with San Franciscobased Lyft. Uber is testing self-driving trucks through their company Otto in San Francisco. And UPS customer Amazon has patented a highway network that controls self-driving trucks and cars and is developing an app to match them with shipments from their distribution centers. They are also testing drones for deliveries and automating their warehouses.

Most experts agree—the first wave to hit will be “platooning,” which is a line of trucks that follow each other closely. Only the first truck has a driver; the rest are controlled by a wireless communication system. When the first truck brakes or speeds up, the rest of the trucks get the signal and follow it. These “platoons” could equal a train of trailers behind one tractor and will dramatically reshape the freight industry in the next ten years.

Automation is not a new threat

As Teamsters, we should be very, very concerned about how this technology will impact our jobs. And that is why Joint Council 7 is working on this.

According to the American Trucking Association, roughly 70% of the goods in this country are moved by truck. Yet we face a driver shortage in freight and virtually every industry where we represent workers who need a commercial driver’s license, including busing, construction, and more.

This is where the technology steps in to fill the vacuum. And everywhere from San Francisco to Sacramento to Washington DC, regulators and elected officials are scrambling to figure out how to adapt to these new technologies.

The safety issues are huge and that issue is getting most of the attention. But nobody has a plan to help workers who lose their jobs because they are replaced by robots.

The issue of automation is not new to us. Just ask Teamsters in the parking industry who lost their jobs to parking kiosks. Or, talk to public employees who used to work reception, only to be replaced by a “take a number” system. But nowhere has this hurt us more than in food processing, where we once had roughly 100,000 members just in California canneries alone. Although people eat less canned food and NAFTA opened the door for some of our jobs to go to Mexico, automation inside the canneries has taken its toll. We now have only 15,000 members working under the master cannery contract.

Impact on workers

What happened to those workers? Let’s look back to 2012, when Campbell’s Soup shut their Sacramento plant and 700 members of Teamsters Local 150 lost their jobs. The government swooped in to provide job training assistance to our members. Last year, the Sacramento Bee profiled one of our former members by the name of Julie Farris. Her mom worked at Campbell’s for 40 years. She followed her mom there, and as a Teamster single mother with two kids, she made $23 an hour plus benefits. She received job training assistance; it took her three years to learn to become an ultrasound technician and find a job. She was forced to move her family in with her mom and struggled to cover costs when she had health issues. In the meantime, Campbell’s soup owner John Dorrance Jr., whose family is the 17th wealthiest in the country according to Forbes Magazine, gave up his U.S. Citizenship and moved to Ireland to avoid U.S. taxes.

That example illustrates that job training is not the only answer. We are asking politicians for the time and help to figure out answers. Some experts say the solution is a so-called “Universal Basic Income,” a guaranteed income check for every working-age person in America regardless of employment status. Under this utopian vision, everyone will be able to spend more time with their families because we all won’t be so tied up at work. Sounds good, but who pays for it? The tax-payers.

Maybe a better solution is to tax the companies who displace workers with these new technologies. The money could go toward job training and supplement income for workers. This “robot tax” is being proposed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and being studied by San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, who invited me to be on her advisory panel. I’m not sure if this will work, but I do agree that these companies are making money hand over fist and they should pay for putting people out of work.

Under the leadership of Rome Aloise, Joint Council 7 is meeting with academics, elected officials, industry representatives, and more, to forge a path forward. We are working with the IBT, and at our suggestion there will be a workshop on this issue at the upcoming Teamsters Unity Conference. The robots are coming and we are getting ready for them.