AI Ethics: AI Fear and Loathing in Unions and the Workforce

If you believe the headlines, you might think that the future is pretty dire for contact center workers. Unions are up in arms over massive layoffs and call center shutdowns. The pattern usually goes like this: A large company announces mass layoffs of long-time call center workers citing cost savings, employees are caught off guard by the announcement and feel betrayed, and unions protest the lack of transparency from management in reaching the decision. The cycle repeats. While many contact center closures are the result of moving the call centers to places where labor costs are lower, more often they’re the result of automation, including using artificial intelligence (AI) to handle customer interactions.

Many wonder if unions that represent contact center workers should fear AI, if they should protest new technology in the workplace — and treat it as the enemy of labor. And even more want to know what the future really looks like for contact center workers.

Unions Should Highlight AI Benefits
If the mandate of a union that represents call center workers is to prevent job loss, then unions might have justification to worry about AI. However, unions have a larger mandate than just preserving jobs. Looking solely at this metric doesn’t account for the opportunities that AI will create in transforming the role of the contact center employee — and improving circumstances for those who remain in the field.

Beyond just securing jobs for their members, unions are charged with gaining fair wages, ensuring that work conditions are acceptable and constantly improving, and that workers can engage in productive and meaningful work. While unions might have little ability to change the trend of technology adoption or prevent the implementation of automation, there are many areas in the AI-powered environment where they can have a positive impact on employees’ work.

While one might expect unions to put forward Luddite-based arguments to spare contact center jobs, their approach to automation has been much more accepting. They express seeing the bigger picture — the increased productivity that automation creates is better for everyone. And the argument has shifted: Employees deserve to share in the windfall that automation and AI bring to companies. And the benefits of this automation will accrue to a wider band than a few individuals in management. A branch of the latter sentiment is the basis for universal basic income, helping spread the benefits of AI.

Automation and AI might mean it takes fewer people to handle inbound customer requests, but it doesn’t mean that the future of employees in the contact center is all doom and gloom. The future for these workers, and the unions representing them, is actually promising with the benefits coming from the same AI, such as handling more calls. Contact center agents will benefit from much better conditions and the transformation of their roles from simply answering calls to solving problems to dealing with challenging — and exciting — problems.

The work environment of the contact center is ripe for disruption; AI-based methods will slowly push for changes. And when it comes to unions’ concerns, AI solutions can create a fairer environment for workers, assessing them for better training and empowering them with more autonomy and decision-making — especially when it comes to how, where and when they work.

AI will create transparency in how and why decisions are made within a company. By providing a neutral third party, AI systems will reduce tension between workers and management while offering solutions that balance all their needs.

Check out the entire AI Ethics blog series and join the discussion on AI ethics.