Fighting The Future: Teamsters Demand UPS Ban Drones And Autonomous Vehicles

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from the giving-unions-a-bad-name dept

As I’ve occasionally mentioned in the past, my undergraduate studies were in (of all things) “industrial and labor relations,” which involved many, many courses of study on the history of unions, collective bargaining and the economics around such things. I tend to have a fairly nuanced view of unionizing that I won’t get into here, other than to note that a big part of the reasons why unions get a bad name is when they take indefensible positions that they think will “protect” their members, but which actually are long term suicidal. This is one of those stories. Reports are coming out that as the Teamsters are entering negotiations on a new contract with shipping giant UPS, their demands include a ban on both drone deliveries and on the use of autonomous vehicles. These are, not surprisingly, both technologies that UPS has been experimenting with lately (as has nearly every other delivery company).

You can understand the short term thinking here, of course, UPS drivers see both of those options as potential “competition” that would decrease the number of drivers and potentially cause many to lose their jobs. And that might be true (though, it also might not be true as we’ll discuss below). But, at the very least, demanding that the company that employs you directly choose not to invest in the technologies of the future is demanding that a company commit suicide — in which case all those jobs for drivers would likely be eliminated anyway. While there are obviously a lot more variables at work here, it’s not hard to see how a competing delivery company — whether Fedex, the US Postal Service, Amazon or someone else entirely — could get drone/driverless car delivery right, and suddenly UPS’s service is seen as slower, more expensive and less efficient in many cases. If that’s the case, UPS would likely have to layoff tons of workers anyway.

The other key point: the idea that these technologies are simply going to destroy all the jobs is almost certainly highly overstated. They very likely will change the nature of jobs, but not eliminate them. Professor James Bessen has been doing lots of research on this for years, and has found that in areas of heavy automation, jobs often increase (though they may be changed). That links to an academic paper he wrote, but he also wrote a more general audience targeted piece for the Atlantic on what he calls the automation paradox. As Bessen explains:

Automation reduces the cost of a product or service, and lower prices tend to attract more customers. Software made it cheaper and faster to trawl through legal documents, so law firms searched more documents and judges allowed more and more-expansive discovery requests. Likewise, ATMs made it cheaper to operate bank branches, so banks dramatically increased their number of offices. So when demand increases enough in response to lower prices, employment goes up with automation, not down. And this is what has been happening with computer automation overall during the last three decades. It’s also what happened during the Industrial Revolution when automation in textiles, steel-making, and a whole range of other industries led to a major increase in manufacturing jobs.

He does note that the nature of many jobs can change, and also recognizes that just because this has happened in most industries in the past it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing will happen in the future.

But, if we were to game out the scenarios here, which one makes more sense? As explained above, forcing UPS to put a complete ban on these technologies will be devastating for the company and the people it employs should the technology take off. If, instead, as Bessen suggests, jobs change and demand increases, then wouldn’t the union’s membership be much better served by working with the company together on a program that enables the experimentation and deployment of these technologies combined with programs to help its current workforce transition into new or related jobs around the likely increased demand for shipping? Even if we see the worst case scenario that the union clearly believes, of drones/autonomous vehicles destroying jobs — as already discussed that will happen anyway if the Teamsters ban UPS from innovating while their competitors do.

This is, yet again, an example of short term thinking on the part of the union, and a near total lack of strategic vision for what will best serve membership in the long term. It is focused on pretending the future doesn’t exist, and if everyone just covers their eyes and ears and pretends these technologies don’t exist, they somehow, magically, won’t change the market. If I were a member of the Teamsters I’d be quite angry at this kind of short-term, destructive thinking by my union, rather than being forward-looking and aiming for solutions that will actually help the members in the long run.