Bending Technology to Empower Workers – Next100
Commentary   Economic Opportunity

Bending Technology to Empower Workers

Technology isn’t always good for workers; but workers are finding that digital tools can be a source of empowerment.

Conversations about the toll that digital technologies are taking on workers and society have become a common fixture in our nation’s public discourse. If I drew a graph that showed the number of media stories and studies published in recent years on the “future of work,” gig work, or the “Uberization” of the economy, it would probably appear, ironically, similar to the controversial Moore’s Law curve, which proposes that technological progress is exponential in nature.

In aggregate, what are these articles and analyses telling us about the relationship between technological development and workers? And what might their account of things be leaving out?

Technology as Labor’s Dystopia

The narratives reflected in these stories and studies tend to go something like this: computers and machines are taking over our lives and organizations. Just look around at the masses of public transit commuters with heads buried in their phones, or the increase in the number of kiosks and self-checkouts in our grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. For workers, especially, the implications are profound—and, as these narratives seem to suggest—universally negative.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots directly compete with humans for intelligence and decision-making powers, promising to displace millions of workers. Information about our habits, preferences, relationships, and beliefs have become a valuable source of profit and power for firms whose business models rely on the ability to extract, aggregate, analyze, and monetize data. As a result, individuals are increasingly being surveilled, both as consumers in their homes, and as workers in their workplaces—all the while being denied access to the returns (and wealth) on the very firms to which they contribute. Data asymmetries and digital divides create new—and exacerbate existing—mechanisms that favor businesses over workers. In short, technology is squeezing workers’ power, further constraining their autonomy and freedom, while giving firms greater power and rent-seeking ability to control the terms of the employment relationship.

To be clear, it is a good thing that we are having these discussions. The U.S. economy has undergone a profound digital transformation, particularly in the decade since the recession. A 2018 Bureau of Economic Analysis report showed that between 2006 and 2016, the digital economy grew at a rate triple that of the U.S. gross domestic product. The diffusion of digital technologies into nearly every business, workplace, and pocket has changed how social interactions are formed, personal relationships are conducted, and goods and services are produced. Therefore, we should be vigilant about how technological change is shaping almost every aspect of our lives—including how we work, who gets to work, how we treat workers, and even the more philosophical questions about what is considered “work.”

Less discussed, examined, and imagined, however, are the ways that technology can be used to enhance worker power. Sure, enormous waves of technological innovation are leading to the creation of new products and services, and generating greater efficiencies—often with an aim of maximizing profits. But, what about creating solutions to benefit and support workers? What can technology do for them?

Let me reveal an alternative narrative—a story not of technology and profit, but of technology and labor, and building community and solidarity.

Labor, and Technology as an Unsung Asset

Alongside the pronounced uptick in digital activism, which has become ever so important for social and political engagement, worker-driven digital solutions are also on the rise. Workers from all backgrounds and experiences are using digital technology to build collective power: to mobilize workers, push for pay raises and better working conditions, and change policy to shift the current political and institutional landscape.

Workers and worker organizations—union and non-union—across a range of industries and sectors are turning to technology to increase their reach and effectiveness. They are experimenting with digital tools in various ways to connect masses of workers and give workers greater voice in their workplaces, and are using data more creatively to develop and deploy new and innovative organizing strategies. Social media platforms, online campaigns and petitions, worker cooperatives, and blockchain surveys are just some of the ways that technology is being used to build community among workers, share information, and provide greater access to benefits, educational resources, and advocacy services.

The examples of these digital organizing initiatives are legion, and are just as diverse in their sector and approach. Teachers, for example, have turned to social media groups to share information, coordinate, and empower themselves, sowing seeds of solidarity while inspiring actions across the country. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, the organization behind a newly introduced bill that would extend labor rights and protections to domestic workers, has developed a “portable benefits” app, tying benefits to workers rather than employers—a welcome innovation for many gig workers who lack health care and retirement benefits. Coworker.org is an online platform that provides workers with the data, tools, and support they need to organize their coworkers to join in actions and campaigns to push for changes in their workplaces. United for Respect has developed an app, powered by AI, to organize workers across retail and other sectors, providing them crucial resources and information on relevant laws and policies that impact them. Up & Go is an online cooperative that helps workers who manage their own professional cleaning businesses reach a broader base of potential new customers.

I hope you can see now how the first narrative I posed in the preceding section, while accurate, is not only bleak—both in how it describes the present and predicts a future of exploitation, destruction, and fear for most workers, particularly the young, less educated, and people of color. It’s also not necessarily the whole story. This second narrative is also accurate. It’s just lesser known. It also speaks to the present and future, but to one of empowerment, inspiration, and hope. Unfortunately, there are fewer stories and studies highlighting how workers and worker organizations are taking control of technology to uplift and empower themselves. By only focusing on the first narrative, we risk falling into a fallacious, self-fulfilling, determinist mindset: “technology is king,” the principal driver of societal change, and thus cannot be bent in ways that give workers a greater sense of imagination, agency, and autonomy, to make the changes they want to see in their world.

This second narrative is also about the promise of collective solutions that give workers new knowledge and tools that improve their quality of life, and motivate them to participate in collective-building. After all, in order to be able to embrace a different vision for the future—one that defies expectation and convention—we must have an alternative view of where we are, and where we could go. And this narrative—our narrative—reveals that technology is our tool, as well.

Pushing Back on Dystopia

As a policy entrepreneur at Next100, I am dedicating myself not only to spreading (and advancing even further) the collective, empowerment-focused narrative of technology. I am also working on policy and systemic solutions that build economic, regulatory, and electoral power for workers, all in the interest of amplifying economic opportunity and well-being for workers in the modern economy. One of the key areas on which I will focus is how digital tools in particular can support and enhance the power of workers.

Throughout the last century, the labor movement has played an important role in ensuring that workers had power, both within and outside of the workplace. (It should not go without saying, though, that even during labor’s strongest moments, many workers—disproportionately female and of color—did not have a place within the movement, at least within industrial trade unions.) In recent decades, however, the labor movement’s strength in that role has diminished, giving way to a number of forces: changes in the national and global economy; the structure and function of corporations; the primacy of financial markets; outdated labor laws; a rise in employer resistance; and public anti-union sentiments and politics—all of which have served to weaken the underpinnings of the labor movement.

Today, we need a labor movement that not only reflects a broader and more diverse representation of workers, but that also acknowledges that the predominant thinking, methods, and tools used to build power from the early to middle part of the twentieth century will not be sufficient for addressing the challenges workers face in the twenty-first century.

Today, we need a labor movement that not only reflects a broader and more diverse representation of workers, but that also acknowledges that the predominant thinking, methods, and tools used to build power from the early to middle part of the twentieth century will not be sufficient for addressing the challenges workers face in the twenty-first century.

Of course, digital tools alone are no silver bullet for solving all of today’s labor problems, such as stagnant wages, non-existent benefits, employment discrimination, precarious and unfair working conditions, and work-related health and safety issues. These problems are too deeply enmeshed in institutional and structural ills to be remedied by any one tool. And, while it is true that digital tools offer the promise of disrupting the status quo in ways that favor workers, we must not forget that digital tools are available (and being harnessed by) both pro- and anti-democracy groups. Further, virtually all technologies present new challenges, both for those doing the developing and those doing the adopting; and, quite often, the more disruptive the technology, the larger the challenge. Nevertheless, as the examples in the previous section illustrate, digital tools have the potential to be important instruments for addressing the challenges of building power, organizing, and bargaining collectively at mass scale in the modern economy—and in the interest of creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

If designed and deployed with the right institutional aims, and supported by the right people and practices, digital tools can enable workers to take action, to be seen and identified, to organize themselves, and help worker organizations to reach and engage with a broader base of workers—many of whom, historically, have not been a part of the labor movement.

It is up to us, the social actors—businesses, governments, educational institutions, those of us who are workers, and the broader public—to influence how technology is used, which, in turn, will shape the social, political, and economic order of things. Let’s change the narrative, and bend technology to benefit not just some, but all of us.

About the Authors

Portrait of Phela Townsend, she has a very curly bob and a grey blazer.
Phela Townsend Economic Opportunity

Phela Townsend is scholar-activist on a mission to transform how we think about—and value—labor and work in our society. At Next100, her work examines how today’s workers and labor organizations are using digital tools to rebuild worker power in the twenty-first century. Phela is also a PhD candidate at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

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