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Commentary / Is your union strategizing about AI and automation?

Commentary / Is your union strategizing about AI and automation?

Cal MurguBy Cal Murgu

The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed industries across the globe. Large language models (LLMs), like the Microsoft-backed OpenAI GPT-4, have shown impressive capabilities in understanding and generating human-like text. These advancements have enabled applications such as chatbots, translation, video, image, and text content generation, which have become increasingly sophisticated.

As post-secondary institutions may seek to increasingly adopt AI and automation to streamline operations, reduce costs, and ‘enhance’ learning experiences, often through third-party vendors, many academic staff jobs have the potential to be replaced or fundamentally altered by software. While these new technologies offer tremendous potential, they’re not as foolproof as advertising makes them seem. Consider, for instance, how GPT-4 is known for fabricating information when it fails to pull anything of substance.

In the face of these changes, labour unions can play a crucial role in ensuring that the potential negative consequences of AI do not disproportionately affect the well-being of university and college workers. By serving as a collective voice for workers, labour unions can advocate for policies that mitigate the risks posed by AI, promote transparency in decision-making processes, and fight for fair wages and working conditions.

Labour unions can help ensure that AI tools augment rather than replace human labour by implementing policies that facilitate their use in ways that complement human skills and expertise. Labour unions can help preserve job opportunities and maintain the all-important human element in post-secondary education by introducing policies that focus, for example, on collaboration between humans and AI to achieve better outcomes. Furthermore, labour unions can push for investment in worker retraining and skill development programs to equip academic staff with emerging skills to adapt and thrive in an increasingly automated work environment.

As unions within the academic environment represent a diverse workforce, ranging from faculty members to support personnel, they can address specific concerns such as academic freedom, tenure, intellectual property rights, complement, and the casualization of workers. In this context, they must promote the needs of their members while collaborating with the administration to maintain the viability of the institution. In their continued fight for fair wages and working conditions, unions are innately addressing a concern regarding the impact of AI on remuneration. Moreover, unions must advocate for the equitable redistribution of savings generated by automation, ensuring that the administration invests these financial gains through wage increases, better benefits, and improved working conditions.

To ensure that the adoption of AI is fair and equitable, labour unions can promote transparency in the decision-making process around this technology. By actively setting the agenda, labour unions can help create solutions that consider the potential benefits of AI and automation and the concerns and needs of workers. One way labour unions can promote transparency in decision-making regarding AI is by advocating for joint AI committees within post-secondary institutions. These committees would bring together representatives from labour unions, administrations, IT departments, and other relevant stakeholders, including students, to consider and make decisions about AI and automation.

To ensure that the adoption of AI addresses the concerns of different groups of academic staff, benefits all stakeholders, and does not disproportionately harm any specific group, unions could consider adopting a more collaborative approach, working together to identify common goals and shared interests. They can also engage in inter-union dialogue to better understand the concerns of each group and develop solutions that consider the needs and well-being of all academic staff before collective bargaining.

It is unclear to what extent LLMs and other AI technologies will impact post-secondary education. However, an increasing number of specialists warn against the harsh realities of AI adoption for workers. Whatever the case may be, labour unions at universities and colleges have a vital role to play in safeguarding the interests of workers.

By advocating for policies that protect jobs and prioritize AI technologies that complement human labour, promoting transparency in decision-making processes, and fighting for fair wages and re-investment of savings into the institution, unions can help create a more inclusive and equitable transition to an increasingly automated future.

Cal Murgu is an Instructional Design Librarian (Librarian II) at Brock University. His research interests focus on digital pedagogy and distance learning in academic libraries and beyond, as well as librarian/faculty collaborations in the classroom


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