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UAW's push for 32-hour workweek might have roots in AI

The auto industry's shift to electric vehicles, automation and AI could redefine labor roles -- and it might be a driver behind the United Auto Workers' push for a 32-hour workweek.

About 150,000 United Auto Workers members who work at the Big Three automakers recently voted to authorize a strike if they don't reach a labor agreement. Along with wage increases, healthcare and pension issues, the union has reportedly sought a 32-hour workweek as part of its negotiations.

The UAW is negotiating labor agreements with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which makes brands such as Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler. The union contracts expire Sept. 14, and if no new agreement is reached by then, a strike is possible. The UAW represents about 400,000 workers overall in several industries.

"We haven't had a large company or industry yet shift to this model," said Juliet Schor, an economics and sociology professor at Boston College and the lead researcher for pilot programs run by 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit organization promoting the idea of a shorter workweek. "If the automotive industry does adopt a 32-hour week, it could open the floodgates," she said.

But some also see automation and AI playing a role in the union's push for a shorter workweek.

The auto industry is increasing electric vehicle (EV) production and "is redefining itself in perhaps the most meaningful way in more than a century," said Thomas Goldsby, a professor of supply chain management and the Haslam chair in logistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Haslam College of Business.

EVs are simpler to assemble, are largely modular and don't have nearly as many parts as a combustion engine vehicle -- and assembly can be more readily automated, he said.

While the 32-hour workweek and wages are at the forefront of the labor dispute, the underlying concern is around the role of labor "in a kind of revolutionized industry," Goldsby said.

Technological disruptions

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, global program director at 4 Day Week Global, sees an era ahead "where we're facing huge potential disruptions from AI and other new technologies."

If today's robots and AI can give us a four-day week, what will technology in 10 years give us?
Alex Soojung-Kim PangGlobal program director, 4 Day Week Global

The idea "that we should convert the benefits of new technology into greater free time for everyone in an organization -- including the C-suite and managers -- rather than higher output or profits for shareholders is pretty revolutionary," Pang said. He is also the author of the 2020 book Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less -- Here's How.

"If today's robots and AI can give us a four-day week, what will technology in 10 years give us?" Pang said.

In June, members of President Joe Biden's administration met with labor unions to discuss AI in the workplace. In the closed-door meeting, labor leaders "observed how employers can use AI tools to cut jobs or make work schedules more uncertain," according to the White House's summary of the meeting.

Schor said the auto industry's adoption of a 32-hour workweek could help legislative efforts to codify a shorter workweek. A bill introduced in Congress in 2021 to reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act would make hourly workers eligible for overtime after 32 hours. That bill by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) has seven Democratic co-sponsors but no Republican backers. It has not advanced in the Republican-controlled House.

Schor said 4 Day Week Global has found that shorter hours strongly affects a range of outcomes, such as burnout, mental and self-reported physical health, and job satisfaction.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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