Automation will impact jobs; how much is up to us

In the past few months, the issues around automation and driverless trucks have become a major focus for Joint Council 7. You may ask why Teamsters should care about automation. The answer is the potential “robot apocalypse.” Some people estimate upwards of four million transportation workers will lose their jobs to automation in the next 5-20 years. Whether and how that happens  will depend on how our employers and our union act on the issue of automation.

Right now, as many of you know, the Teamsters are in bargaining with United Parcel Service. Covering more than 250,000 workers, UPS is not only our largest employer, but it’s the single largest collective bargaining agreement in the country.

Amazon is UPS’ largest 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.

UPS is right there with Amazon. UPS invested in Mountain View-based Peloton Technology, which is testing truck platooning here in California. Platooning is where you have 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. This is coming in the next 10 years.

Who gets to decide what happens in the future?

We know that the technology is coming, but what happens is up in the air. We have the opportunity to make sure new technology benefits everyone in our society, not just the shareholders and CEOs of large corporations.

Last year, we actually negotiated a deal with Peloton Technology and Assemblymember Marc Berman that guarantees a driver in every truck within their platoon while they are testing in California.

In Washington D.C., the Teamsters, with the help of Senator Dianne Feinstein, have so far successfully kept large-scale commercial vehicles of 10,000 pounds or more out of federal legislation that will make it easier for these companies to deploy driverless vehicles.

Our union is pushing the state and federal government to make sure that workers have a seat at the table in defining problems that we want technology to solve. We are challenging the companies behind automation to explain what problems they are actually trying to solve and whether the solution make things better or worse.

Let’s talk about some of the justifications for self-driving vehicles, especially trucks and buses. Many people talk about lower emissions, cost savings, and safer highways. We also hear about the shortage of available drivers and the looming crisis around that.

The Teamsters know why these jobs are hard to fill. Prior to the deregulation of trucking by the federal government in the 1980s, thanks to our National Master Freight Agreement, driving a truck was a good middle-class job.

Truck driving was almost mythical. I remember my dad had a CB radio in his pickup truck. We listened to trucking songs on the radio. Smokey and the Bandit was a hit movie.

The Teamsters were the largest union in the country and there really was no non-union trucking. After deregulation, the phoenix that rose out of the ashes was this model of hiring truck drivers as “independent contractors” instead of employees.

This independent contractor model is something we’ve been fighting at the ports, in construction, and other places. It is the same business model that FedEx, Uber, and Lyft use to hire their drivers.

Many companies deliberately misclassify their workers as independent contractors. This scam allows trucking companies and their customers to outsource almost all the costs and risks of trucking onto the backs of the workers. The companies don’t pay payroll taxes, worker’s compensation, or much of anything, allowing them to undercut our employers and the social safety net.

Independent contractors are treated as small businesses under the law and as such they have no legal right to organize a union. In very little time, trucking went from a good job to one where drivers work an average of 60 hours a week, making less than minimum wage; they have no health insurance, unemployment, worker’s comp, or social security. No wonder there is a driver shortage!

I humbly suggest that the industry is using autonomous vehicles to solve a problem that they themselves created.

The question before us now is whether increased automation will make things worse? Research being done by our partners at the UC Berkeley Labor Center and Working Partnerships USA points to that being a very real possibility if government doesn’t intervene.

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by The Atlantic magazine on this very issue. I was asked to respond to a report by Uber predicting an actual net increase in jobs due to driverless trucks. They predict that as long-haul gets taken over by driverless trucks, more transfer hubs will be built outside urban areas, where human drivers will take over to do the “last mile” because city streets are too difficult for driverless trucks to manage.

But the report was totally silent on the issues of job quality. Will these be good union jobs or will they be more “independent contractor” jobs?

And how will the changes impact people like our UPS drivers? Where else can someone with a high school diploma make a living wage plus family health care and a pension?

What should be done about it?

The Teamsters are not against technology or innovation. We are not trying to stop it and we are not under the illusion that we are going to protect all of our jobs. But we are going to do our best to protect our members and we need the help of elected officials. That is why our involvement in politics is so important.

We can’t trust the companies to write the rules. We need commitments from them to retain and retrain incumbent workers. We need them to work with us to create strong programs for workers to learn the new skills – with training programs directly linked to jobs. And we need to make sure these are quality jobs.

That is where the real innovation can happen. Real innovation should make our jobs easier and safer. It should reduce the gap between the haves and have nots.

In my opinion, those are the problems we should working to solve.

Now this may sound very pie in the sky but this is a moment of opportunity that demands big thinking and leadership. The last time we had massive unemployment in this country was during the Great Depression, when roughly 25% of the country was unemployed and 15 million workers were on the streets.

What was the Government’s response? In 1935 we got the National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the right to organize a union. We got the Social Security Act. And the government began the Works Progress Administration, an eight-year program that spent billions of tax dollars and put 8.5 million Americans to work building bridges, roads, buildings, parks, and more. This was all followed up in 1938, when we got the Fair Labor Standards Act. That gave us the eight-hour day, overtime, and an end to child labor.

With a changing economy, it’s time again for government to “go big.”  To that end, the Teamsters and the California Labor Federation are pushing legislation to establish a California commission to look at technology, automation, and the future of work. You will definitely hear more in the future.

Trish Suzuki Blinstrub, Political Director