Early victory on the AI front: AFL-CIO signs pact with Microsoft

WASHINGTON—With the recent SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guilds’ successful strikes over bosses’ schemes to use artificial intelligence (AI) to create “zombies” where workers now toil, the AFL-CIO is making moves to try to permanently fix the issue before it gets worse. The union federation has inked a new agreement with Microsoft that it hopes will set the standard for labor to negotiate with employers to anticipate workers’ needs and include their voices in the development and implementation of AI.

The pact, coincidentally, also appeared to create immediate dividends for the Communications Workers, which has been a pioneer on the AI issue.

“Bargaining an unprecedented union contract at Microsoft subsidiary ZeniMax, 376 members of ZeniMax Workers United-CWA won a tentative agreement to govern the company’s adoption of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace. The agreement commits ZeniMax to human-centered AI implementations and six guiding principles for the development and use of AI,” the union said.

“This partnership is the first of its kind between a labor organization and a technology company to focus on AI and will deliver on three goals:

(1) sharing in-depth information with labor leaders and workers on AI technology trends;

(2) incorporating worker perspectives and expertise in the development of AI technology, and;

(3) helping shape public policy that supports the technology skills and needs of frontline workers,” a joint AFL-CIO-Microsoft statement said.

It also commits Microsoft, again, to company neutrality in union organizing drives, this time in AI-centered workplaces.

“The labor movement looks forward to partnering with Microsoft to expand workers’ role in the creation of worker-centered design, workforce training, and trustworthy AI practices,” federation President Liz Shuler said. “Microsoft’s neutrality framework and embrace of workers’ expertise signals this new era of AI can also catalyze a new era of productive labor-management partnerships.”

The partnership will start with AI instruction and training by Microsoft for union leaders and workers on both the potential and the problems of AI. There will be on-demand digital resources workers can get online. The partnership and the Teachers union (AFT) will work on career and technical education curricula so present and future workers can prepare themselves for an AI-heavy future.

A second goal will be constant communication between the company and the workers its sessions will train, along with union leaders. The point, they said, is to ensure that as AI develops, it will be structured as a “worker-centered technology.”

And with Congress—or at least the Senate—starting to tackle AI, too, the federation and the company will unite to “propose and support policies that will equip workers with the essential skills, knowledge, and economic support needed to thrive in an AI-powered economy.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Microsoft President Brad Smith sign the new ‘tech-labor partnership’ agreement. | via Microsoft

“The two organizations will support the expansion of registered apprenticeships, particularly in nontraditional tech occupations,” they add.

Polls show workers are leery of AI eliminating their jobs but welcome its potential to make work easier or less monotonous.

The “elimination” aspect—with major film, TV, streaming video, and Netflix executives almost foaming at the mouth to replace weeks of work on a show, movie, or video by live people with one day’s worth and then using AI to reproduce their voices, images, mannerisms, and likenesses forever, without paying them—was a key trigger in the Hollywood strikes, especially for SAG-AFTRA.

The unions won the war on that, for now, with the studio and streaming bosses agreeing to residual payments for AI use, even of the images of long-dead stars.

But the AI fight is far from over; it’s actually just getting started. AI also will be a big issue in the next big entertainment industry contract negotiation, covering the 168,000 members of the Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). That pact comes up next year and union President Matthew Loeb welcomed the AFL-CIO-Microsoft agreement as a blueprint.

“This partnership is an encouraging avenue for continued, productive collaboration between unions, as well as with tech leaders to defend workers’ rights in this era of rapid technological change. We look forward to participating,” Loeb said.

Loeb noted the AI agreement’s goals scan closely with his union’s core principles, issued last year, for addressing AI and machine learning technology. Both include “continuous education for affected workers, joint policy and skill development, and direct feedback from labor leaders and workers.”

IATSE Animation Guild official and top organizer Ben Speight noted the neutrality pact should help expand the union.

“Microsoft and its subsidiaries are increasingly producers of entertainment, and we believe all entertainment workers deserve the opportunity to democratically elect their union representatives in free and fair elections, regardless of the medium they work in,” he said.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.