Workers Are Terrified About AI. What Can They Do About It?

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Times were tough in early 19th-century England. The Napoleonic Wars had decimated the country’s economy. To save costs, wealthy textile factory owners replaced skilled artisans with automated machinery to create their goods. The workers fought back—literally—by raiding the factories and destroying the machines in these mills in what became known as the Luddite movement, named after Ned Ludd, the apocryphal leader of the raids.

Today, Luddite is synonymous with people who reject new technology—but we’ve seen the same struggles and frustrations with employers echoed throughout history, from Henry Ford’s assembly line, to mass food production, to self-check-out lines at the grocery store. The most recent episode is now playing out in reaction to the AI boom.

Since the release of ChatGPT late last year, we’ve already seen it being hailed as a kind of turning point in the tech world, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the advent of social media and the internet itself. And it’s resulted in an infusion of billions of big-tech dollars into generative AI, and a groundswell of companies embracing the tech quickly—much to the detriment of workers. Labor unions and activists have been caught off guard, and now they’re doing everything they can to fight back before it’s too late.

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Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the Writers Guild of America strike that began in April following disputes with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. While a large part of the union’s demands has to do with higher residuals for programs on streaming platforms, entertainment writers also called on management to “regulate the use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.

“What I like about what the Writers Guild is doing is they’re publicizing it, speaking out, and putting a face to it,” Elizabeth Shermer, associate professor of history with a focus on labor rights at the University of Loyola, told The Daily Beast. “Bringing these ideas of what has actually happened in the industry is fundamentally what matters.”

It’s not just the Writers Guild fighting back against the use of AI to replace their labor, either. Media companies like CNET, Buzzfeed, and Insider have had several large rounds of layoffs in recent months that come on the heels of each company embracing the use of generative AI to produce cheap, low-quality content. Workers have responded: Both Buzzfeed and Insider’s unions have been attempting to secure severance for some of the laid-off workers, while CNET’s editorial staff of roughly 100 workers are in the midst of unionizing.

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Coupled with the Writers Guild strike and the arguably reckless pace at which companies are willing to adopt a mostly unproven, experimental, and demonstrably harmful technology, the world seems to be falling headfirst into a labor struggle the likes of which it hasn’t seen in quite a while. The “move fast and break things” ethos that put this century’s tech giants on the map in the 2000s now seems resurgent on the back of AI—putting workers in a precarious situation where they feel no choice but to fight back.

The issues that workers are facing with AI aren’t new. Bots have been disrupting and changing the landscape of the economy for years. Uber and Lyft couldn’t have decimated the taxi industry without its underlying AI, and the same goes for the likes of Postmates and Grubhub for the food industry.

Shermer refers to this sea-change as the “gigification” of jobs. Companies and businesses don’t have to hire full- or part-time employees when they can just get somebody to do it on contract for less money and zero benefits. With the release of ChatGPT, we’re seeing AI used to accelerate that shift to an eye watering pace.

“One of the big benefits of the gig economy from an employer's standpoint is that so much of our rights are actually tied to our employment, like health care,” Shermer said. “The majority of Americans are looking for employer-based plans. That’s why American businesses have really high labor costs as compared to other western industrialized nations.”

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At its core, what automation does—whether it be through a textile machine, assembly line, or generative AI—is deskill labor. No longer are you required to be an incredibly skilled textile artisan, automaker, or software developer if there’s a machine that can do it for you. Yet, you might have already devoted so much of your time and energy to learning those skills.

When this happens, any labor that is there becomes less about doing actual, skilled work and more about minding the machines—or babysitting the AI.

“Rather than actually doing the initial creative or otherwise thoughtful work, it becomes double checking output, which is more easily turned into piecework,” Emily M. Bender, a professor of linguistics at the University of Washington, told The Daily Beast. “You then get an extension of the gig economy into more sectors.”

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“The reason that this matters is because, when you take away the skills that a person has, you have just stripped the power that they had to bargain for better wages and benefits, which is really crucial in the American context,” Shermer said. “Our basic rights are tied to our jobs.”

The result, then, is not just a loss of a job and livelihood, but also one’s identity, and ability to operate as a fully functioning citizen. If you’re in the formal labor market (i.e. full-time job not in the gig economy), you’re going to be able to pay into social security. The more financially stable you are, the more you’re going to be more likely to be involved in the democratic process. Automating your labor with AI, then, becomes more than just dollars and cents—it becomes an existential threat to your rights as a human citizen.

What can workers do then to protect their rights as more companies begin to automate their jobs? For one, they can vote in and encourage lawmakers to take a more rigid approach to regulating emerging technologies like AI.

In the past few weeks alone, Congress has been holding hearings with the likes of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman for this very purpose—though elected officials seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from the hearings. With Congress’ notorious inability to regulate the tech industry in a timely manner, though, workers might not want to necessarily bet on lawmakers to help them out.

Workers can also unionize, collectively bargaining with companies for better wages, benefits, and protections against automation like the Writers Guild is currently doing. However, even that has its obvious limitations as companies continue to lay off large swaths of their workforce. Meanwhile, companies where the workers don’t have the ability to organize effectively can be left behind too.

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But Shermer said that, when it comes to the fight for labor rights, it’s not a sprint but a marathon. “It’s a continuous battle to make sure that people have democracy on the job,” she said. “That’s the whole point: to empower people to recognize their humanity on the job, so that they can have a voice not only in their wages and benefits, but actually how they're treated.”

The bitter pill to swallow with all of this is the fact that AI will most likely displace a lot of workers in the coming years. It’s not a matter of if, but when. An economic report released by the White House in late 2022 even acknowledged this: “It is inevitable that workers in some jobs will be displaced because AI automates rather than augments worker tasks,” adding that “job displacement is costly for those made redundant and could be disruptive for labor markets in general.”

So until there’s meaningful legislation to protect workers and untether basic human rights like healthcare to labor, the coming wave of automation will undoubtedly be painful for a lot of people.

In the end, it didn’t matter how many textile mills and factories they broke into. The Luddites still lost their battle against the machines. Only time will tell if the same will happen to workers whose jobs and livelihoods are at risk of seeing their roles automated by algorithms. As the adage goes, though: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

“This is, fundamentally, an ongoing battle,” she added. “It’s just like it has been since we’ve had the assembly line.”

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