Good Labor Policy Is Good Technology Policy: Worker Voice in Technological Change

February 22, 2024

"As much as near-future speculative vignettes are effective in illustrating the dangers of unfettered technology uptake in the workplace, they also lay bare the underlying problem: Workers in the US are hindered by weak workplace protections and a profound lack of power vis-à-vis their employers."

Executive Summary

Policies that address the impacts of new technologies in the workplace have been slow to materialize, but we’re witnessing an uptick in concern over and action related to how new technologies will change work. Some policymakers have been sounding alarms for years1—especially those who have heard from constituents in industries where technology is already impacting work, such as the taxi industry, warehousing, health care, and retail. In many cases, these technological developments were seen as marginal to the functioning of the overall economy, with impacts limited to workers in these industries—many of which employ large numbers of low-paid workers of color.

With the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in 2022, advanced large language models—artificial intelligence (AI) at an unprecedented level of sophistication—emerged as a potential existential threat to workers across the income and occupational spectrums,2 and thrust workplace technology’s impacts into the center of political debate. In the wake of its release, advanced AI has absorbed nearly all of the attention on new workplace technologies. But the emergence of AI has also raised the possibility that we risk getting stuck in a pattern: A newfangled technology bursts onto the scene, accompanied by fanfare on one hand and hand-wringing on the other, and a scramble commences to understand, predict the effects of, and form new task forces on how to regulate said new technology. In some ways, this is a rational, cautious, and predictable approach for government bodies to take. But it also means our policymaking apparatus is always reacting to technology and likely only responding to the technologies that promise widespread “disruption” to the status quo.

A different approach is proposed in this brief: one that acknowledges the need for attention to specific technologies, but contends that workplace technology is best dealt with by strengthening worker power across the economy and especially in industries where new technologies are poised to make substantial changes to jobs and tasks. More specifically, it argues that one powerful way to shape the impacts of new technologies on an ongoing basis is to advance a set of policies that expand the right to organize and bargain collectively, increase protections at work, and enforce existing regulations. This brief offers examples of what we can learn from collective bargaining processes over new workplace technologies, how new labor policies could shape the introduction and use of technology, and how enforcement of existing laws can strengthen protections for workers against the potential negative impacts of technology, including workplace surveillance and displacement.



Anyone who has participated in a discussion about digital technologies in the workplace in the last year has likely heard dystopian vignettes from the not-so-distant future—one in which robots, workplace monitoring, and AI-enabled management have evaded regulatory action, and workers find themselves under the watchful eye of a corporate panopticon peering over their shoulders and tracking the minutiae of their lives in the workplace and beyond. The stories are harrowing and produce visceral anticipatory anxiety; meant as warnings, they paint a picture of a future in which workplace technology policy has failed to find relevance.

Employers have long used technology—defined broadly—to increase productivity and to control and discipline their workforces, from plantations to factories and beyond, implicitly shifting the balance of power in their favor in the process. Tools and methods for accounting for slave labor precede mechanisms of ensuring productive industrial wage labor, which foreshadow modern forms of “data capitalism” (Milner and Traub 2021). Digital technologies have intensified the focus on efficiency in many workplaces, while also producing information asymmetries, arm’s-length screening, management and discipline tactics, and intimate forms of data collection.

Today we face a succession of new workplace technologies that promise to upend work as we know it, and policymakers often find themselves caught on their heels as the newest “innovations” become the focus of attention—from platform work, to surveillance, to the current mania around artificial intelligence.

As much as near-future speculative vignettes are effective in illustrating the dangers of unfettered technology uptake in the workplace, they also lay bare the underlying problem: Workers in the US are hindered by weak workplace protections and a profound lack of power vis-à-vis their employers. Neoliberal policies, with the backing of powerful business interests, have framed the free market as the most efficient arbiter of the economy and sought to shrink the size and scope of the government—though in many cases government power was instead leveraged in order to coordinate markets and advantage corporations and high-wealth individuals. Policies stemming from this model, in turn, led to a concentration of corporate power and a host of negative impacts across a range of measures, including racial equity, economic opportunity, housing access, and educational success (Stiglitz et al. 2015). Neoliberal imaginings about inexorable progress and the inevitability of technological change could be found spewing out of Silicon Valley’s “disruption” machine—in fact, as a recent “techno-optimist manifesto” (Andreesen 2023) reveals, these “dangerous ideas” continue to circulate, albeit with more skepticism than a decade ago (Bhalla and Robinson 2023). In labor markets, neoliberal trickle-down policy resulted in industrial deregulation, a failure to increase the minimum wage, changes to labor law that made it more difficult for unions to maintain membership—let alone grow—and reduced funding for critical labor market institutions such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Labor (DOL), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The development of new technology, especially as it related to work, was viewed as an engine of economic growth, so any impacts on inequality could—indeed, should—be overlooked.

But like other workplace issues, there is a clear way to improve outcomes for workers: Strengthen their rights and their voice on the job. Understanding the impacts of emerging technologies on particular industries and occupations and finding ways to mitigate potential harms from their adoption remain important tasks. But the sheer speed with which technologies come to market makes it difficult for policymakers and government agencies to keep up with new developments. This brief argues that one essential way to increase democratic participation in technological change and curb the negative impacts of new technologies on an ongoing basis is to advance policies that offer increased protections at work, expand the right to organize and bargain collectively, and enforce new and existing regulations.

This approach won’t solve everything—in cases where many jobs may be eliminated by a new technology, worker voice and power might soften the blow to displaced workers but cannot prevent that from happening entirely. But in many workplaces, the set of policies suggested herein could make a meaningful difference. The next section briefly summarizes the history of workplace control and its relationship to technology and power. The following section makes an argument for how labor policy can be used to address the structural issues that tip the scales away from workers as new technologies are introduced, with three subsections: what we can learn from collective bargaining processes over new workplace technologies, how new labor policies could shape the introduction and use of workplace technologies, and how enforcement can strengthen protections for workers against technology’s negative impacts. The brief concludes with thoughts on how the emerging “post-neoliberal” economic consensus offers a path forward.


1See, for example, California Labor & Workforce Development Agency n.d.; Kang 2017; and Koff 2017.
2See, for example, Miller and Cox 2023; Zinkula and Mok 2024; and Zahn 2023.

How Labor Policies Can Strengthen Worker Voice

Collective Bargaining

Labor unions have a long history of shaping the ways in which technologies are introduced in workplaces, and offer some of the best examples available for how workers can meaningfully participate in technology adoption processes (Voss and Bertossa 2022; Stanford and Bennett 2021). As Lisa Kresge (2020) detailed, unions have used collective bargaining negotiations to intervene in three main ways: establishing the roles of labor and management in decision-making over technological change; addressing the impacts of new technologies on jobs, tasks, and workers; and responding to employers’ use of technology to manage the workforce.

Regulatory Reform

Workers deserve protection regardless of their status as union members, and the vast majority of workers outside of unions rely on a patchwork of federal, state, and local labor laws to set minimum workplace standards. Along with significantly expanding the number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, workers need a stronger regulatory framework that sets minimum standards and erects guardrails around technology use.


Holding employers accountable for working conditions and ensuring workers feel free to report problems on the job are key mechanisms for protecting the health and well-being of all workers, but particularly those who face the greatest labor market vulnerability. Strengthening and enforcing anti-retaliation measures and whistleblower protections also encourages workers to report cases in which new technologies may infringe on other labor rights, creating feedback loops where workers can report employer noncompliance without fear of reprisal, and agencies learn directly from workers about new areas in which to focus their enforcement efforts.

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