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Labor seeks to break into the debate over robots

The AFL-CIO is preparing to re-invent itself
1959: In their heyday, steelworkers on strike in Chicago. Photo: Grey Villet / LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Three decades after Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union, organized labor is still trying to regain its footing. Just 10% of American workers belong to unions, half the percentage of the Reagan era.

What's happening: Later this month, the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor group, will convene a closed conference call of the leaders of its 55 associated unions to start figuring out how to climb back, Elizabeth Shuler, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, tells Axios. Later this year, they will gather in Washington, DC, to advance the process.

Why it matters: Robots and jobs are among the most-discussed subjects on the planet. Yet labor — the long-time voice of workers who will be most affected by the technological change — is all but missing from the conversation when thinkers discuss how to address the new age of automation.

  • "All the trappings of your life are connected to your employment arrangement," Shuler says. "The employer-employee relationship is being threatened. You see employers shedding that responsibility. Why not? Of course they would do that."

Be smart: The union has an uphill climb against a deep anti-labor stigma in the U.S., and it knows it. But sentiments change, and so much else is topsy-turvy that a turnaround it is not inconceivable. Says Shuler: "We need to be new, different, relevant, attractive to people. People want to know, 'How does this benefit me?'"

The bottom line: Here is the thinking that Shuler will press: "What kind of society are we going to have if you can't make it? When you have atomization, amazonization and part-timization of work? No one is going to have decent wages, retirement, pensions."