Unions Adjust to “Racist” Automation

The Huffington Post has a new article that insists that When We Talk About Automation, We Also Need To Talk About Race. Why do they say this?

unite-hereTechnology is becoming ever more present in the way work in all industries is done. From robotic stations that cook and prep food and tablets replacing front desk clerks during check-in to driverless vehicles, the future of work is automated. More than any other group, people of color are likely to be affected by these changes. Automation will have a disproportionate impact on both African-American and Latino workers because of their overrepresentation in jobs at risk of being displaced by automation, according to a December 2017 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, this claim goes back to guesses made by social scientists about which jobs are at risk of automation. These guesses should be taken with a big grain of salt, but they seem reasonable.

This legacy dates back to the introduction of the first mechanical pickers in the cotton fields of the South, forcing millions of black workers into factory jobs in northern urban industrial centers, such as Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland.

Hand picking cotton was so labor intensive that slaves were often employed to do it. Using machines to do the work freed people from a very hard and (at best) low paying job.

“People of color are the lowest on the job queue. This has been in place since the beginning of the workforce, there’s always been a pecking order,” says Katrinell Davis, a sociologist at Florida State University and author of Hard Work Is Not Enough. “As employers are sorting through workers, people of color are the last to be hired and first to be fired.”

This is at least a gross generalization. In my industry (software development), Asians are proportionally over-represented by far–something that doesn’t bother me in the least, BTW. Is Davis claiming that Asians are not people of color? They’ve certainly faced their share of discrimination, historically.

The cycle continued as manufacturing jobs migrated out of urban centers and into suburbs where black people were excluded from housing, causing another shift toward employment in public sector jobs. Many became bus drivers or took roles in retail or service sectors, which are also implementing new technologies that on one hand can improve safety and productivity in the workplace in some areas but could also potentially push workers out of jobs altogether.

Factories were forced to move out of urban centers as costs rose. They would rather have stayed in the cities, where they had good sources of labor, but needed to move out to remain competitive.

Before the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided $375 million to fund large-scale urban transit projects — which were previously owned and operated by private entities — these jobs were largely filled by white men who did not need to possess a high school diploma. As federal funding flowed into these agencies, so too did policies requiring fair hiring practices, and thus an influx of African-American representation in the civil service sector.

Instead of efficient private company, a taxpayer funded socialist system was set up, and social welfare was prioritized over minimizing costs. Public transit is one of the few areas that socialism does make sense.

Technology could be a threat to this hard-won progress. Cities like Columbus, Ohio, for example, are looking to implement a pilot program using driverless vehicles within the next decade. Now is the time, says Davis, to examine the real effects it may have on communities of color.

As cities continue to struggle to find ways to deal with their problems without taxing their companies and citizens to the point where they leave for greener pastures, they will be looking for any way to reduce costs.

“It’s unsettling to know that we’re embracing driverless technology but we haven’t seen the research. It seems that this is an innovation that is being thrown on us, implemented in various communities, unaware of whether communities have been informed on where their tax dollars are going,” said Davis. “That transparency is necessary.”

If cities can show a cost savings, why wouldn’t taxpayers  be happy, assuming the service is safe?

As contracts for hospitality workers continue to come up for renewal in cities across the country, the Culinary Union and Bartenders Union [part of Unite Here] reached tentative agreements with the largest employers on the Las Vegas Strip ― Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM Resorts International. “This innovative contract sets clear goals regarding technology and automation for worker retention, job training, advance notice of implementation, and severance package,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, said in a June 2 statement.

This seems sensible. Unions can’t expect to halt automation. Negotiating contracts that help them get the support they need as changes are made is wise.

A memo released in September by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United says that in California, the introduction of automation such as apps that take orders and table-side tablets in several chain restaurants has resulted in higher sales and productivity, which, the report says, has also meant in some cases hiring more employees in different positions.

Companies don’t automate to eliminate workers, they do it to improve profits. That means they may target costs, but they may also look to improve the top line. Reducing costs is only ever going to give you an incremental increase in profits. Only increasing revenues can achieve significant growth. This is one reason why its better to work in the private sector. The public sector focuses almost entirely on reducing costs.

Rather than fight automation, Unite Here supports the implementation of tech innovations like motorized room service carts to prevent injury for housekeeping staff moving the heavy equipment from room to room, and GPS-enabled panic buttons for attendants should they be sexually harassed on the job.

This makes sense.

For an article that claims there is a need to talk about race, very little is said about the reasons for the disproportionate representation of minorities in occupations that are at high risk of automation. One thing mentioned is historical discrimination against blacks in suburbs to which factories moved in the sixties, but surely this is less of a problem today. You cannot claim to care about racial inequity, but then fail to address it. I applaud Unite Here for working with employers to attempt to do something positive.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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