The AFL-CIO, a federation of 60 unions representing 12.5 million workers, and technology giant Microsoft announced a first-of-its-kind partnership in December to develop artificial intelligence in a manner that includes the voice of workers. Microsoft is a major partner of OpenAI, which develops generative AI software ChatGPT.
Anxieties about AI replacing human workers have only accelerated since ChatGPT launched over a year ago. According to a recent AFL-CIO survey, 70 percent of Americans worry about workers being replaced by AI. Yet people also recognize that AI will transform how work gets done and welcome AI’s ability to automate work that many consider drudgery.
When global consultancy PwC asked 54,000 workers to choose the statement that best described how AI might impact their work, the top choice (at 31 percent) from among nine attitudes about AI was “AI will help me increase my productivity/efficiency at work,” far ahead of “AI will replace my role” (at 13 percent).
A Seat at the Table for Workers
“The historic new partnership reflects a recognition of the critical role workers play in the development, deployment and regulation of AI,” said Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO president.
The Microsoft/AFL-CIO partnership acknowledges that while some jobs may be lost to AI, others will be created because of it—and for many employees, work will be forever changed by it. During the partnership’s announcement in Washington, D.C., Brad Smith, vice chair and president of Microsoft, said that “AI is going to change people’s jobs. I can’t say that AI won’t displace some jobs, but I can say it will create new jobs that didn’t exist before. The key is to use AI to make jobs better.” Shuler, on stage with Smith, agreed and added, “We think of this [partnership] as a co-creation process—unions can be at the table helping shape AI and jobs so that the human element is freed up.”
3 Goals of the New Tech-Labor Partnership
The new partnership combines two of the most important trends of the last year: the emergence of generative AI and the growing influence of unions. Microsoft and the AFL-CIO have agreed to work together to achieve three goals related to AI and workers:
- Direct feedback to develop worker-centered technology. The partners will seek to ensure that the perspectives of workers inform the work of Microsoft’s AI developers and have created a mechanism for labor leaders and workers to share experiential insights, concerns and feedback directly to the people who develop Microsoft’s AI technology.
- AI education. Microsoft will provide formal learning opportunities around AI, giving labor leaders and workers information and insights on AI as it evolves. These sessions will be augmented by on-demand digital resources that labor leaders and workers can access online.
- Joint policy development. As Congress debates future AI and workforce legislation, the AFL-CIO and Microsoft will work together to propose and support policies that equip workers with the essential skills, knowledge and economic support needed to thrive in an AI-powered economy.
Expert Perspectives on the Partnership
Workplace and tech experts shared their insights on the partnership:
Worker involvement can be beneficial. “Research has consistently shown that worker involvement in the implementation of new technologies can both streamline adoption of those technologies and also help identify higher-impact use cases,” said Ben Armstrong, co-director of MIT’s Working Group on Generative AI and the Work of the Future.
Developing generative AI for the workplace isn’t just about the technology itself, said Armstrong, who co-authored a recent MIT Sloan School of Management research paper called Bringing Worker Voice into Generative AI. “It also requires deep knowledge of the work processes that the AI is intending to change. That’s where having input from workers can be critical.”
White-collar workers need upskilling on AI. The partnership’s focus on training workers to deploy AI is critical. “Generative AI now poses an existential threat to knowledge workers,” said Nick Gausling, managing director of consultancy The Romy Group and author of Bots in Suits: Using AI to Revolutionize Your Business (Romy Group LLC, 2023). As a consequence, he explained, “office workers should start considering how they might diversify their skill sets, including learning to use AI both inside and outside the office.”
The two groups may face some challenges. One core challenge that Armstrong highlighted is the possibility that workers might have different goals compared with the technology team seeking to automate a task. The worker may recommend ways to make the task more efficient or improve the quality of the task’s output, while the technology team might potentially be looking to automate the task entirely, thus removing the worker from the loop.
“In most cases we’ve seen, it’s actually not cost-effective or more reliable to remove the human from the loop, so full automation isn’t the best option,” Armstrong said. “Instead, the challenge becomes how IT teams and business teams can speak the same language and identify their common goals.”
Labor-tech partnerships are already happening. “Cooperation between unions and firms on strategic decisions is common practice in several countries around the world,” said Felix Koenig, assistant professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. “In Finland and Germany, for example, worker representatives are part of the board of large employers. An advantage of these [partnership] models is that they provide a channel for worker ‘voice’ from the shop floor to management. Harnessing the knowledge of workers not only helps develop more effective AI tools, but also helps reduce worker fears of such technologies.”
What might success look like? “There’s often the assumption that workers will be threatened by new technologies,” Armstrong said, “but when polls ask workers about how new technologies impact their work, people often respond positively and enjoy the introduction of new technologies that can make their lives easier.”
The partnership’s success or failure, he added, will ultimately depend on whether worker perspectives on, and demands for, greater transparency in how algorithms work and in how the tools can be used actually get translated into design changes for the AI. “It would not be helpful for the technology teams to pay lip service to caring about workers’ perspectives and then simply build technology tools that undermine worker priorities.”
Starting a Trend?
At the announcement of the new partnership, Shuler invited other big tech companies to follow Microsoft’s example and enter into partnerships with labor on the development of workplace technologies.
“Why wouldn’t you want the people who use the technology every day helping to develop it?” she asked. “We know we can’t stop AI and that it will impact every job, but we want to ensure that workers help shape AI with guardrails, protections and the worker perspective.”
Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer from Boston.