The Role of AI in Union Busting: How Employers Use Artificial Intelligence to Keep Workers From Unionizing
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Unions and workers, beware. Employers have a new tool at their disposal in their union busting campaigns — artificial intelligence. Anti-labor organizations are finding ways to harness the technology to profile, spy on, and retaliate against union sympathizers and workers who attempt to form a union.
Essentially, AI is putting “a 21st-century twist on classic union busting,” writes Elizabeth Meisenzahl at The American Prospect.
Here are two recent examples of how employers have used AI to keep unions out of their workplaces.
Amazon Uses AI to Identify Union Sympathizers
It’s no secret that Amazon will use all means necessary, fair or foul, to keep its employees from forming unions. Though there have been numerous attempts by Amazon workers to form unions in the U.S., only one location was successful in April 2022, and that union still doesn’t have a first contract over a year later.
It’s a testament to the depth of the company’s anti-union machine that it can successfully quash so many unionization efforts. And its union-busting playbook is only getting bigger with the adoption of AI technologies.
In 2020, a leaked company memo detailed Amazon’s use of a new technology — the geoSPatial Operating Console (SPOC) — to analyze and visualize data sets pertaining to threats to the company, including unions. Reported by Jason Del Rey and Shirin Ghaffary at Vox, some of the data points related to unions include:
- Amazon-owned Whole Foods’ market activism and unionization efforts.
- Flow patterns of union grant money.
- The presence of local union chapters and alt labor groups.
The approach is an obvious attempt by the company to use more passive means of identifying and neutralizing union sympathizers in the company.
“Amazon’s tracking of workers’ micro-movements, decision points and searches and then linking all of that data to that of unions, community groups and legislative policy campaigns is union busting on its face,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in a statement at the time.
Turns out this was only the beginning.
Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens, reports that Amazon has moved beyond SPOC “to a centralized AI [that] can detect union-friendly phrases and behaviors in every Amazon warehouse automatically in real time and at zero cost.” That data, he explains, feeds into the AI which learns “how to devise strategies to neutralize their programmed target,” which, in this case, is “workers in a break room.”
NEDA Replaces All Workers With a Chatbot After Unionization Victory
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) used AI in a different way to keep unions out.
Four days after the helpline workers won their election and formed Helpline Associates United with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 1101, the company announced it would shut down the healthline and fire all newly-unionized workers on June 1, 2023. They were replaced by an AI-powered chatbot, Tessa; a plan that backfired and led to the chatbot being removed.
“Tessa is not designed as a replacement for human support,” says Abbie Harper, Helpline Associated United member and former helpline associate. “Nor was it designed to replace the Helpline — and that’s according to its lead developer, Dr. Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft. I’m of the immovable belief that we were all fired for unionizing.”
“This is about union busting, plain and simple,” writes Harper in an article for Labor Notes.
Workers need to be aware of these union busting tactics and how companies are using technology against unions and workers. Union leaders and organizers must stay vigilant in identifying when such things are happening and communicate that to organizing workers. A tool like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® facilitates that outreach to help unions keep workers one step ahead of employer anti-union campaigns.
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