Transnational labor policies in the era of artificial intelligence

Since taking office, the Biden administration has worked with Congress to invest in technology and innovation, premised on such investment as a necessary part of great power competition against China. This new industrial policy is evident in new government investment through the computer-processing-power-focused CHIPS Act and the launch of the military-technology alliance AUKUS, which arranges technology transfer and innovation between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US. The scale of innovation that the US government is now funding at home and abroad is intended to demonstrate some of the superiority of the US-led “international rules-based order,” emphasizing open markets and free societies, and is intended as a contrast with the global outreach of Russia and China. While the American government is taking proactive steps in investing in technological innovation, those steps mainly benefit corporations and the wealthy, neglecting a vital and necessary aspect for any thriving innovation economy: labor.

The federal government is investing in developing an industrial base that can manufacture superconductors and chipsets, and has also established the Office of Strategic Capital to focus on the potential of AI. However, this approach is limited to manufacturing and corporate finance. The government should learn from the consequences of relying on SpaceX for satellites and launch capacity, despite the company’s owner’s unpredictability, addiction, instability, and questionable loyalties. It is important not to repeat the same mistake in a promising new industry like AI. While there’s every reason to be optimistic about artificial intelligence in the long term, recent reporting has demonstrated some of the technology’s remarkable limitations and shortcomings, as well as the ways it can pose a threat to democracy

Marketing by and conduct of industry leaders suggest that a god-like intelligence is imminent and that they are the only ones who can ethically train it (for dubious definitions of “ethically trained”). At the same time, the products currently on the market are not actual artificial intelligence but are yet another iteration of the Mechanical Turk. This 18th-century “automaton” appeared to be able to play chess against humans, but in reality, a person was hidden inside and operated it. Similarly, ChatGPT and other technological marvels are operated by people laboring under sweatshop conditions.

While the form of this exploitation has changed over the centuries since, the underlying principle of using cheap human labor to pose as artificial intelligence persists, because capital can easily relocate jobs across national borders, companies are able to exploit loopholes in laws that are meant to protect labor and the planet. From the deregulation and deindustrialization policies of the Carter and Reagan administrations to the rise of tech giants and social media companies, this process persists into the present. As a consequence, workers at home and abroad are often subject to constant labor exploitation, as in the case of Twitter employees at home and Facebook content moderators abroad. When this exploitation occurs within democracy and capitalism, it hinders the case for American soft power and leaves sweatshop workers in poverty. This prevents many countries from developing widespread stability that can allow democracy to thrive.

In order for the “international rules-based order” to successfully embrace the potential of artificial intelligence and integrate it into their economies and societies, collaboration between the public sector, private sector, citizens, and labor is required. This cannot be achieved solely by delegating government functions and funding to private industry. If the United States aims to lead in AI, it must prioritize domestic and international labor rights. Doing so would enhance the rights, dignity, and prosperity of billions of people and pave the way for greater innovation. By leading with American values, the country can continue to attract more countries towards its principles and away from authoritarian regimes.

During the post-pandemic economic boom, the United States witnessed a surge in labor militancy and support for organized labor unions. This was partly due to concerns about the impact of AI on middle-class workers. However, despite this, the federal government needs to do more to support labor in the new era. The WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and UAW strikes played a crucial role in protecting workers from AI. The agreements reached during these strikes took into account the important lessons learned from the labor and political disruptions that led to the creation of the Rust Belt, which resulted in greater inequality and political radicalization. Already, Biden’s NLRB has been one of the most effective and proactive boards of the post-war era, helping secure significant milestones such as Starbucks unionization. As legislation for technology innovation, the CHIPS Act included labor provisions, like those aimed at producing good-paying jobs with daycare, to encourage more women and primary care providers to become innovators and entrepreneurs over time. Still, there is much more that needs to be done by the NLRB and the government to support labor. 

Providing strong and proactive support for labor unions in the technology industry is crucial. Backing tech worker unions can help American workers secure their jobs, earn better wages, and have job protection. It will also enable them to gain experience, build wealth, and develop professionally, which can lead to the creation of their own innovative tech companies. Such support can broaden and deepen the pool of skilled workers at a time when the government and the country are struggling to retain tech talent. Additionally, it will protect American technology jobs from offshoring and the increasing use of sweatshop labor in other countries. To make this happen, it is necessary to take measures such as cracking down on union-busting tactics, imposing significant fines for anti-union activity, and even considering jail time where appropriate, particularly in companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. This way, the United States would be bringing the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights home with a specific focus on artificial intelligence and advanced technology workers.

As the leader of the “international rules-based order,” these are priorities and values the United States should support in collaboration with allies and partners. The Joint Global Initiative to Advance Rights of Working People Around the World between the United States and Brazil is focused on green jobs and organized labor as ways to protect and elevate the role of workers and worker organizations in strengthening democracy. That could be expanded across the OAS through diplomatic efforts and mutually beneficial policy arrangements. By doing so, the US can establish a more robust and sustained bilateral engagement, which can help strengthen economic, political, and social ties with its neighbors. This approach will foster trust and cooperation between the US and its neighbors and include expedited immigration opportunities for AI and tech workers across the Western hemisphere. The United States could push forward within the International Labour Organization (ILO) to create a global wage floor, combat tech offshoring/sweatshopping, and create a positive global future around technological innovation. Each of these would expand and accelerate innovation for the technologies necessary to counter Russia and China, increase global political stability, and act as a counterweight not only to authoritarian regimes but also as a way to defeat them over time.

These labor reforms at home and abroad will strengthen democracy, accelerate innovation, and prevent worker exploitation. This will make the “international rules-based order” more innovative and competitive while improving living standards and labor rights. It also provides economic liberty and safety, which are necessary for individuals to move beyond low-paying jobs and towards artificial intelligence, which can help us solve problems and cure diseases. By working together, the United States and its neighboring countries can create a more prosperous and sustainable future for everyone involved.

Lucas F. Schleusener is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Bluesky at @lfschleusener.bsky.social.