California can be a leader in making sure innovation works for all of us

May 6, 2019

If we want the jobs of tomorrow to be good jobs, working people need to be at the table negotiating a better approach to innovation.

Governor Newsom’s new Future of Work Commission is a key opportunity for California — birthplace of the technologies that are changing our jobs — to be a leader in making sure those technologies benefit our communities and contribute to a more just economy.

No matter how we make our living, most of us want pretty similar things: work that pays the bills, time with our families, vibrant communities. But right now, working people are struggling to stay upright in an economy that’s being tilted against us. Right-wing attacks on our freedom to join together in unions and the exploitive business models of the gig economy have chipped away at our wages and power, with low-income communities and people of color hit the hardest.

The introduction of new technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence threaten to worsen these structural inequities, taking us down a path where our jobs are less stable, lower paid, and overseen by dehumanizing black-box algorithms and pervasive surveillance.

Yet these technologies also have the potential to make our lives better. They could take over repetitive and dangerous tasks so we can focus on interesting challenges that need human insight. They should let us spend less time at work and more time with our families. With the right rules of the road, we can guide innovation so productivity gains are broadly shared, we all get a fair return on our labor, and we have a meaningful voice in our jobs.

We know what can happen when working people help shape the direction of technology — and when they’re cut out. Several years ago, some hotels handed housekeepers an app that told them which room to clean next. It was a textbook example of what happens when a corporation introduces technology without talking to the people who will have to use it. Instead of trusting the housekeepers’ knowledge and experience, the app sent them jumping between floors when there were dirty rooms right next door. It wasted their time, increased their stress, and took away their autonomy.

In Silicon Valley, we took a different approach. Housekeepers at the San Jose Marriott — members of the union UNITE HERE Local 19 — won a provision in their contract that any new technology must be evaluated by a joint committee of workers and management. Together, this committee will analyze the potential impacts, develop a training plan, and negotiate over how the tool will affect workers’ jobs.

This is the model we should be going for: making sure working people have a collective voice in shaping new technology so innovation actually benefits us all, especially the most vulnerable in our society. Workers are experts in their jobs. They know what’s not working and what could be made better. With them in the conversation, we’ll end up with better technologies that solve important problems and make our economy both more productive and more just.

The new Future of Work Commission provides the space for this conversation. By bringing together worker advocates, business leaders, technologists, and policymakers, the Commission can collaboratively address the impacts of new technology and promote good jobs. We’ll need strategies to help people continually build skills, support workers as they retrain for new jobs, and make sure those new jobs pay enough to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. We’ll need to make sure the corporations that profit from introducing new technology contribute their fair share to cover the costs of disruption. And we’ll need standards to protect our privacy and govern the appropriate use of algorithms and our data.

Ultimately, the future of work is not about technology. It’s about the future of working people and our communities. As the Governor wrote in his Executive Order creating the Commission, “wage stagnation, unemployment and underemployment, exploitation of workers, and rising inequality are not inevitable consequences of economic growth and technological advancement, but rather, trends that can and will be reversed through sound policy decisions and investment in our shared future.”

California is renowned for technological innovation. It’s time for us to be just as innovative in managing the challenges and opportunities created by those technologies. With working people at the table, we can shape a future of work that works for all of us.

Derecka Mehrens is the Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA. Enrique L Fernández is the Business Manager of UNITE HERE Local 19 in Silicon Valley.