WFD | The Time of Monsters

| Google v. NLRB | Slowing Automation | Spreading Innovation Jobs |

Stowe Boyd
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Beacon NY | 2019–12–10 | I’m pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long-term, and hopeful in the present. But there are times where pessimism seems to swamp me.


The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

| Antonio Gramsci


Google under investigation from NLRB | Jennifer Elias reports on the ongoing controversy at Google around anti-union activities, including firing four employees:

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has started a new investigation into Google’s labor practices.

An agency spokesperson confirmed to CNBC Monday that the probe, which will include whether Google violated labor laws when it recently fired four employees, has officially commenced. It will also look at whether Google discouraged employees from engaging in union activity. The investigation is expected to take roughly three months and be conducted by its regional staff based in Oakland.

[…]

The latest investigation comes after four Google employees filed a federal complaint with the NLRB on Dec. 5, alleging unfair labor practices, which would violate a settlement made by Google.

[…]

The latest investigation stems from employee uproar over the interrogation and subsequent firing of employees Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland, who had been placed on sudden and indefinite administrative leave in November for allegedly sharing sensitive information.

After that, Berland and Rivers held a rally in San Francisco that drew in roughly 200 Google workers, demanding the company reinstate the two employees and stating they were placed on leave in retaliation for their activism against the company’s handling of hate policies and immigration issues.

The week of Thanksgiving, Google fired four employees, including Berland and Rivers, claiming they shared confidential documents and breached security. In an internal memo, the company’s security and investigations team called it a “rare” case.

Sundar Pichai has a real mess on his hands.

:::

Workers Deserve a Say in Automation | Sherrod Brown and Liz Shuler make a case for the proposed Workers’ Right to Training Act, intended to adapt to an increasingly automated world:

Every day, new technology and workplace innovation is changing how we live, work, and relate to each other. The potential benefits are undeniable — higher productivity, an increased standard of living, and a cleaner, healthier world. Too often, though, when companies decide to adopt new technology, workers are left out of the conversation.

Major industries always evolve — from transportation and health care and education. The question isn’t whether we can prevent industries from changing; it’s whether we as a country are going to make sure workers shape the future with them. We need to ensure working people have a seat at the table.

As the senior US Senator from Ohio and the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers across the country, we have an opportunity to meet working people from Coshocton to Columbus, both in Ohio, and from Chicago to Chico, California. And we’ve heard that they’re worried about losing their jobs to automation, or losing their jobs because they lack the technical skills needed for changing industries. Indeed, some analysis suggests that about 25 percent of US jobs could be threatened by automation.

That’s why these workers welcome new training and professional development opportunities that help them adapt to changing technology in their industry. However, few opportunities like this currently exist — companies are more focused on using technology and automation to cut their workforce costs and boost their quarterly earnings reports.

The Workers’ Right to Training Act addresses their concerns. It gives workers advance notice when their employer adopts new technology and requires that workers receive training on it. The bill also requires companies to bargain directly with workers when they implement any of these changes. No one knows the workplace better than workers themselves. They should have a say in how technology is deployed.

The fight to control the rate and degree of automation is hotting up. I have maintained that this will be one of the three trends that will drive what I have come to call the Human Spring (see What Will a Corporation Look Like in 2050?), the other two being climate catastrophe (and our institutions' failure to address it) and financial, societal, and political inequality.

Right now these three causes have different advocates, but they will ultimately coalesce into a single movement and a global revolution.

Meanwhile, in related news:

In Robots In Aisle Two: Supermarket Survival Means Matching Amazon, Matthew Boyle boils down the threat of automation in retail:

The dark side of all these fancy gadgets is their potential to reduce the amount of human labor supermarkets require. A May report from the management consultants at McKinsey & Co. found that about half of all retail activities can be automated with existing technology. Privately, retail staffers refer to the robots that scrub floors and scan shelves as “job stealers.” Retailers counter that the robots won’t replace humans; instead, they’ll allow workers to perform more less mundane tasks like assisting customers.

The Rise of Robots, and we can see where it is going

:::

A Few Cities Have Cornered Innovation Jobs. Can That Be Changed? | Eduardo Porter cites The case for growth centers: How to spread tech innovation across America by Robert Atkinson, Mark Munro, Jacob Whiton:

The report’s authors propose identifying eight to 10 cities, far from the coasts, that already have a research university and a critical mass of people with advanced degrees. The government would then spend about $700 million a year for research and development in each of them for a decade. Lawmakers could give high-tech businesses that set up shop in these cities tax and regulatory breaks. Mr. Atkinson suggested a limited break from antitrust law to allow businesses to coordinate location decisions.

Battling the forces driving concentration will be tough. Unlike the manufacturing industries of the 20th century, which competed largely on cost, the tech businesses compete on having the next best thing. Cheap labor, which can help attract manufacturers to depressed areas, doesn’t work as an incentive. Instead, innovation industries cluster in cities where there are lots of highly educated workers, sophisticated suppliers and research institutions.

Unlike businesses in, say, retail or health care, innovation businesses experience a sharp rise in the productivity of their workers if they are in places with lots of other such workers, according to research by Enrico Moretti, who is an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and others.

Other industries and workers are also better off if they have the good fortune of being near leading-edge companies. The report points out that the average output per worker in the 20 cities with the most employment in the 13 high-tech industries is $109,443, one-third more than in the other 363 metros across the country.

The cycle is hard to break: Young educated workers will flock to cities with large knowledge industries because that’s where they will find the best opportunities to earn and learn and have fun. And start-ups will go there to seek them out.

Even skyrocketing housing costs have not stopped the concentration of talent in a few superstar cities. High-tech companies that seek cheaper places to set up beyond their hubs often go to Bangalore, India, rather than Birmingham, Ala.

[…]

It is uncertain whether government support could pull innovation out of the clutches of superstar cities. The proposal by Brookings and the Information Technology Foundation will not come cheap: They estimate a $100 billion price tag over 10 years.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but in this polarized world, who knows.


On Platforming Change | Lee Bryant is stirring things up again | Stowe Boyd


Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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