How Unions Are Pushing Back Against the Rise of Workplace Technology

Hotel workers, journalists, and even NBA players have negotiated protections.
April 30, 2019, 10:30 AM UTC
Innovation will eliminate some jobs while opening the door to newer ones. The battle is over how to cushion the impact of, say, stores switching to using self-checkout systems instead of employing human cashiers. Elio Benvenuti—Alinari via Getty Images
Elio Benvenuti—Alinari via Getty Images

A few years ago, Marriott debuted a new app at hotels in five cities that was supposed to save housekeepers time by telling them which rooms to clean. It was a disaster.

Housekeepers ended up yo-yoing between rooms on different floors, ignoring messy rooms just down the hall. If anything, the cleaners felt that the app made them less efficient, and they worried about being disciplined by their bosses for failing to finish their work on time. “A wild-goose chase” is how Rachel Gumpert, a spokeswoman for Unite Here, the labor union that represents Marriott’s housekeepers, describes the episode.

Several months after the union became aware of the problems the app was causing, Marriott’s hotel workers went on strike, partly because of new technologies like the housekeeping app. In December, after intense negotiations, the hotel workers won a remarkable concession—a new contract that requires management to tell them 165 days in advance about new technology so they can raise any concerns.

The Marriott agreement highlights how unions are increasingly pushing to protect employees from the unrelenting march of technology into the workplace. Recently, casino workers, journalists, and even professional basketball players have negotiated contracts that dictate terms like retraining workers who are displaced by technology and limiting how businesses can use data they collect about employees from their devices.

Corporations have said little publicly about the phenomenon. Marriott, for example, declined to comment beyond a statement that it has since modified its housekeeping app so that employees have more control over their daily work assignments. “It is customary for us to work with our associates and solicit feedback when implementing new procedures at our hotels,” Marriott said.

Matthew Scherer, a lawyer who specializes in technology for law firm Littler­ Mendelson, which represents corporations in labor matters, says that most businesses are oblivious to employees’ increasing worries about tech. When talking with corporate clients, Scherer says he recommends that they take worker misgivings seriously so that managers can address them before they bubble over and disrupt business.

“It’s not entirely clear to me how corporate America is going to respond or when it’s going to have its Sputnik moment, as it were,” says Scherer, who declined to discuss specific companies his firm represents.

Whatever the case, everyone agrees that innovation will eliminate some jobs while opening the door to newer ones. The battle is over how to cushion the impact of, say, stores switching to using self-checkout systems instead of employing human cashiers.

Shoppers use electronic self-checkout counters inside a Sainsbury’s supermarket.Simon Dawson—Bloomberg via Getty Images
Simon Dawson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the past, workers have often organized to resist new technology and, in some cases, even to rebel against it, as in the 19th century when tailors in Europe burned down factories filled with newfangled power looms. But these days, union leaders are taking a more measured approach.

“Work is not going away,” says Damon Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the U.S. “There will be new jobs created, and the content of existing jobs will change.”

These days, many leaders immerse themselves in topics like artificial intelligence—much like business consultants. Silvers says that the AFL-CIO has met with experts from Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western University, and business consulting giant McKinsey to discuss technology’s potential disruption to workers. It’s a far cry from the caricature of unions as being behind the times. The point is not to stop technological progress, the unions say, but rather to understand what workers and businesses can do to avoid major disruption caused by technology.

To be sure, unions have negotiated over technology and automation for years. (Just look at the auto industry.) But now the fight is increasingly over software rather than industrial robots, a big job killer for decades.

In the retail industry, software for scheduling employee hours is a big sticking point, says Carrie Gleason, who directs the Fair Workweek Initiative at the advocacy group The Center for Popular Democracy. The technology weighs the hours when stores are expected to be busy or empty to schedule workers, creating a so-called just-in-time workforce.

One problem, however, is that store managers often use the software to slot employees in short blocks of a few hours rather than giving them additional tasks to do during slower periods so they have a full day. As a result, many employees end up with unpredictable schedules that require them to be on call around the clock, thus making it difficult for them to get second jobs.

In reaction, some unions representing retail workers have recently negotiated contracts that spell out how management can use scheduling software, to avoid disrupting the lives of employees. One example is a 2014 contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and retail firm Macy’s that requires advance notice to workers about their schedules and any changes to them.

In its contract negotiations in 2017, the National Basketball Players Association, which represents NBA players, targeted wearable devices. The union was able to establish rules that prohibit teams, in certain situations, from using player health and performance data that they glean from fitness trackers.

“It’s not entirely clear to me how corporate America is going to respond or when it’s going to have its Sputnik moment.” – Matthew Scherer, technology lawyer, Littler ­Mendelson

Heart rate information collected during training or games may show that a player is out of shape, for instance. Under the rules, teams can use this data to help strategize during games. But they can’t factor it in when negotiating individual NBA player contracts because, as the NBA union’s deputy general counsel David Foster explains, the information may be inaccurate.

The reality, of course, is that most U.S. workers don’t have the bargaining power of NBA stars. Non-unionized companies are free to use any technology they want, including gathering and analyzing data about employee performance, as long as it doesn’t touch on factors like race and gender.

For instance, a marketing firm could track how much time employees type on their computers to gauge their performance. The more they‘re at their keyboards, the better.

“As machine learning becomes more powerful, it will be cheaper and easier to monitor workers in that way,” said Brishen Rogers, a law professor at Temple University. “Companies are going to be gathering more and more data about how employees are preforming on their job and they will use that data to reduce labor costs wherever they can.”

The NewsGuild of New York, which represents journalists, has bargained with publishers over the use of data to measure employee performance. The union is concerned that many reporters are being evaluated by how many clicks their articles get online, which Nastaran Mohit, the union’s organizing director, calls a “race to the bottom.”

The NewsGuild says it accepts the reality of today’s digital world. But it believes that employers should measure journalists by the quality of their work and not by quotas that can be negatively affected by Google or Facebook suddenly changing their algorithms.

Ultimately, the guild has been able to secure language that eliminate quotas or reduce them at a number of publications, Mohit says. For instance, the legal news service Law360 once required its reporters to write four stories a day with no exception, a mandate that Mohit referred to in an email as one of the most “demanding and problematic” examples of story quotas in journalism.

Eventually after Law360 workers unionized in 2016, the employees were able to “first loosen their quotas, and then eventually remove them altogether,” she said. Lexis-Nexis, Law360’s parent company, declined to comment.

Members of the the Culinary Union carry signs at a union hall, in Las Vegas in 2018.John Locher—AP/Shutterstock
John Locher—AP/Shutterstock

And it’s not just blue-collar workers who are worried about technology’s impact. White-collar workers like accountants or paralegals, who aren’t typically union members and, generally, have never had to fear technology, are at risk because of software powered by artificial intelligence that can calculate taxes for clients or handle legal research.

“There’s so much anxiety these days among the white-collar class,” said Harvard Business School professor William Kerr.

Annette Bernhardt, the director of the low-wage work program at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center, said unions may eventually push lawmakers to address tech’s impact on the workforce in more sweeping ways.

“What we’re seeing is that unions are the first to dive into these questions, but very quickly policy makers and we as the public are going to have to have this debate as well,” says Bernhardt.

Recent protests by Google employees, who aren’t unionized, against the search giant’s sexual harassment and arbitration policies shows that some white-collars laborers are mimicking union tactics to change company policy. Google responded by eliminating a policy that required workers who accused the company of sexual harassment of going through arbitration rather than the court system.

In any case, Marriott’s housekeepers were able to win some protections in their recent contract, which was similar to one their union negotiated last year on behalf of Las Vegas casino workers. In addition to requiring that Marriott give the union a heads-up about any new technology, it guarantees job training for anyone who is displaced.

A housekeeper could become a cook, for example, and be put to work at the same hotel or one nearby. The contract language covers disruption from both futuristic scenarios like robots that can clean rooms, to more present-day ones like the app that infuriated the hotel’s housekeepers, says Anand Singh, a Unite Here president in San Francisco.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he concedes. However, “you can’t just count on some magical apparatus to reposition and retrain Americans.”

Correction: Hotel worker contract requires 165-day advance notification.

A version of this article appears in the May 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “When Tech and Labor Collide.”