Transit Unions Are Drawing Up a Plan to Confront Autonomous Vehicles

Photo: John Locher (AP)

As institutional embrace of automation continues to create a mounting threat to existing jobs, unions are formally taking note. Last year, the largest Las Vegas service workers union organized a strike partly over casinos’ plans to embrace automated systems, and the union won language in the resulting contract that included protections against automation. 2018 also saw bus drivers protest against the prospect of Ohio adopting driverless buses.

Now, the Transportation Trades Department (TTD), the umbrella of unions that represent transit workers inside the AFL-CIO (itself the largest federation of unions in the United States), has released a policy statement outlining its own plans to confront the threat automation poses to its workforce.

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The statement outlines the scope of the threat by noting that “in the commercial driving sector alone, reports suggest that between 700,000 and 1.7 million workers — including approximately 300,000 in transit operations and maintenance — may lose their jobs or have their jobs fundamentally changed by automation, with other estimates closer to 3 million.”

The document seems imbued with a significant degree of urgency:

We do know that automated shuttles, micro-transit, and ride-hailing pilot projects are already on the ground in a growing number of American cities and more of these deployments are on the way. We also know that Congress and the Administration are setting policies and regulatory frameworks designed to facilitate the further deployment of AVs and it is imperative that workforce impacts and mitigation strategies are considered and addressed in these debates. Good union jobs in the transit sector cannot be jettisoned or ignored simply to satisfy the demands of tech companies or Wall Street investors.

The TTD points out that high union density in the transit sector means that there’s a significant opportunity for workers to manage the transition to automated tech and to mitigate potential harms to the workforce.

Its 8-point plan begins with a demand that transit agencies “be required to provide employees with advanced notice of any planned deployment of automated vehicle technologies.” It also calls for any use of automated technologies to be negotiated with employees who would be affected before implementation and for the maintenance of strict safety standards (no self-certification, which the TTD describes as “not a safety standard”).

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The plan calls for maintaining a human operator in all public transit vehicles, and, more ambitiously, for Congress to establish a transportation workforce fund, “paid for through the implementation a mileage-based user fee on highly or fully automated vehicles.” The fund could be used to pay for “wage supplements, health care premiums, retirement benefits, extension of unemployment insurance benefits, and training or retraining programs.”

Finally, it calls for government agencies to submit detailed reports about any automated vehicles it plans to deploy, for the U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation to issue a biennial report about automation impacts, and for any public transit agency to prepare a workforce training plan whenever the total vehicle miles traveled for the autonomous vehicles in its fleet approaches 5 percent of total miles traveled.

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All told, it’s an interesting document with some solid ideas about how to integrate automation into work environments populated with skilled and semi-skilled workers. Unions that take stances like this will inevitably be scoffed at for appearing to oppose technology, but that’s not what this is at all; it’s an attempt at establishing a roadmap for how human workers might best coexist with the accelerating rise of autonomous systems. And that seems entirely reasonable.

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