Business Lobbyists Want to Talk Future of Work

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By Chris Opfer

A pair of business advocates are launching a coalition to help employers put their stamp on policy discussions about the future of work.

Labor law firm Littler Mendelson and Prime Policy Group, a Washington lobbying shop, today announced the “employer-focused” group. The coalition aims to develop policy responses to the “technology-induced displacement of employees"—or what it calls “TIDE"—and questions about protections for gig workers.

“I see this as kind of a 1930s moment when we started to think about what kind of rules we need to govern a brand new workplace,” Michael Lotito, who co-chairs Littler’s workplace policy institute, told Bloomberg Law. “We believe that we have to bring together not only companies but also government and other interested parties in order to figure this out.”

The coalition comes as the Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress are still trying to get a handle on how automation and artificial intelligence may replace workers on the job. As many as 375 million workers worldwide may need to change careers in the next 12 years as a result of automation, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

That could mean opportunity for Littler, which represents a wide variety of big corporate names, including some major players in the gig economy. Uber, Postmates, Tesla, Amazon, Boeing, Walmart, FedEx, Handy, and Salesforce are among current and previous clients. Littler is one of two labor and employment law firms that also has a federal lobbying shop.

Prime, led by longtime Washington lobbyist Charles Black, is a heavy hitter in the government relations world. The firm has lobbied Congress on behalf of Google, IBM, AT&T, Airbus Americas, Archer Daniels Midland, GlaxoSmithKline, and Chrysler, among other companies.

The Labor Department in two years under Trump has focused largely on apprenticeships as a way to give workers the skills that employers need today. Littler and Prime last year urged the DOL to join with other agencies to develop a strategic plan to train workers in automated systems and prepare for technology-based layoffs.

On the worker advocate side, the AFL-CIO last month held the first meeting of its Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. That group is slated in February to offer formal recommendations.

“Our mission is to build bargaining power and provide economic security for millions of Americans amid massive changes in the workplace,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said during the meeting. “This includes figuring out how to rally and organize workers in the fastest-growing sectors of a rapidly changing economy.”

Tracking China

A report from Littler and Prime echoes concerns expressed by a wide array of research, advocacy, corporate, labor, and government groups about training workers for the new and different jobs that may be coming soon.

The firms reference some of the potential policy responses to changes in the workplace, including a new legal classification for gig workers and universal basic income. But the report is largely intended to jump-start a conversation they say already is shifting policy in China, Japan, Germany, and other countries.

The Chinese government last year rolled out a strategic development plan aimed at making the country a leader in developing artificial intelligence technology. The country also spurred the early retirement of 1.8 million workers in the steel and coal industries by offering them pensions.

Although the firms say lawmakers and administration officials should be at the forefront of future of work talks, they also warn businesses not to wait.

Employers should “take it upon themselves to work together to put themselves and their workers in the best possible position to prepare for the TIDE, adapting and adjusting to the sweeping changes that emerging technologies promise to bring,” the firms said.

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