Its Labor Day, an occasion not lost on Martin Luther King when he led the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” just 60 years ago this week.
The Great Reshuffle saw nearly 50 million people quit their in-person jobs in 2021, only to be rehired and retrained in more flexible work elsewhere. According to the Pew Research Center, 32.6 million Americans will be working in remote, hybrid or flexible schedules by 2025.
The demand for flexible labor is approaching a bellwether on par with the Haymarket Riots: a tipping point in 1886 when nearly 500,000 workers across the nation gathered to strike, protest and riot for a 40-hour work week. While the protests culminated in a public holiday called Labor Day (1894), it remains the strident symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights. Particularly for those who're being continually surveilled by their employers.
Feeding prompts into a ubiquitous rut of permanent inequality, workers today are facing off with mercurial algorithms that increasingly administer the hiring, firing, litigation, liberty and freedom. As the international workforce confront the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), an invasive algorithm is coming of age.
The First Industrial Revolution harnessed water and steam to mechanize production; 2IR used electricity to power mass production; 3IR engaged electronics + information technology to automate digital production; and 4IR prompted computers and algorithms to simulate the human experience.
The top industries in 2023 with the most exposure to AI were science, technology and finance, according to Pew Research. But the majority of remote jobs relying on AI went to computer and IT > marketing > finance > project management > human resources > and customer service.
The history of work — specifically since the Industrial Revolution — is the history of people outsourcing their physical labor to machines. Initially engaged to preform repetitive physical tasks, the Cotton Gin and Spinning Jenni replaced animal labor with machines. Today, machines are mimicking human intelligence to perform tasks that encroach on uniquely human traits like creativity, intuition, conscience, character, and will.
At Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, machines are doing much the hiring, managing and firing with little or no human oversight. Amazon became the second largest private employer in the U.S. in part by outsourcing its sprawling operations to algorithms—sets of computer instructions designed to solve specific problems. For years, the company has used algorithms to manage millions of third-party merchants on its online marketplace, producing complaints from retailers who allege being arbitrarily banned or falsely accused of violating Amazon’s standards and practices.
Recently, the company began ceding its HR operation to automation services to manage workers in its warehouses; surveil contract drivers; independent delivery companies; even the internal performance of its office workers and customer service operations. CEO Jeff Bezos says the machines are “reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage.”
Sixty-three year-old Army veteran Stephen Normandin joined Amazon’s gig-style Flex Team when it was created in 2015. Flex drivers handle packages that haven’t been loaded on an Amazon van before the driver leaves. Rather than making the customer wait, Flex drivers pick up the slack to ensure packages are delivered the same day.
But after nearly four years of racing around Phoenix delivering packages as a contract driver for Amazon, Normandin received a pink slip from a computer. “The automated system is insufficiently attuned to the real-world challenges drivers face every day,” says Normandin. “It seems the people who designed them don’t have any common sense about how the real world works.”
Former Amazon managers told Bloomburg, “the company knew the machines would invariably lead to mistakes and damaging headlines, but decided it was cheaper to trust the algorithms than pay people to investigate mistaken firings so long as the drivers could be replaced easily.”
The use of algorithms to make decisions affecting real people’s lives is increasingly common. Today, algorithms approve loan applications; decide if or whether a prisoner should be paroled; and arbitrarily close credit card accounts, too. Even Chase, the largest commercial bank in the United States, has been accused of allowing algorithms to arbitrarily close primary checking accounts without a name, department, or even an explanation attached to the automated generated letter.
The AI revolution on Wall Street has arrived. Deutsche Bank uses AI to scan wealthy clients portfolios; J.P. Morgan Chase leads in AI research; Capital One in AI patents; and Wells Fargo in AI investments.
While the Algorithmic Fairness Act will attempt to legislate the receipt of information, it seems the nation's largest corporations are lawyering up. Littler Menelson, a labor and employment law firm in Washington DC, specializes in "developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions." Littler explains:
AI is increasingly being used by human resource and management teams, leading to increased scrutiny of how companies use the technology in hiring, termination and other employment contexts.
Perhaps why they poached Bradford Kelley last month? Kelley, who oversaw the Artificial Intelligence and Algorithmic Fairness Initiative at the EEOC, was trained to scrutinize AI and the American pie, i.e., federal civil rights laws.
The 2023 legislative session has seen a surge in state AI laws proposed across the United States. Consumer privacy laws enable both customers and employees to opt out of being profiled by AI. The Big Apple is blazing the trail.
The Automated Employment Decision Tool law, which came into force in July, mandates that all employers in NYC who use AI to hire must disclose the same to their candidates. All corporations will also have to submit to annual independent audits to prove their system jives with the Civil Rights Act.
Because bias is AI's fatal flaw. Only the wise know just where predestination ends and free will begins.
It was the essence of the slogan of some 3000 workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in 1886 who triggered the nation’s first debate and federal law on labor.
They began peacefully under a light rain at Haymarket Square,"Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will,” before eight anarchists stormed the gathering with dynamite; killing police officers; and injuring workers.
King invoked the slogan in '63, but explained that the 'right to work' wasn't just about jobs. It was about labor understanding their civil rights, and how to choose for themselves between different possible courses of action unimpeded by powerful organizations in a progressive era.