Public Unions and Technology: An Uneasy Relationship

From outsourcing and transparency to the specter of artificial intelligence, organized labor has struggled to balance technology with workers’ rights.

by / May 15, 2018

When the top brass at the Massachusetts State Police announced plans in May to activate a GPS tracking system in police cruisers, the union representing the police was not happy.

In a complaint filed with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations, the State Police Association of Massachusetts alleged state officials “failed to bargain in good faith” to negotiate terms for deployment of the GPS trackers. So far, GPS devices have been installed in 1,000 state police cruisers, but the union is demanding management halt further activation of the GPS system.

The problem in Massachusetts is the latest example of what has been a long-simmering dispute public-sector unions have had with technology. Whether it’s GPS to track government vehicles — and the drivers behind the wheels — IT outsourcing or just automation in general, unions and computers have had a contentious relationship.
For the Massachusetts State Police, the GPS controversy is part of a broader effort to bring about reform to a department that has been in the headlines for months after a series of reports uncovered excessive overtime pay and allegations of falsified timesheets for work that was never done. 
To rebuild public trust in the troubled police force, the governor and police leaders called for greater transparency, with GPS as the tool to more effectively keep track of troopers and their work, according to the The Boston Globe. But police unions have resisted allowing the technology to be used, calling it an intrusion on privacy as well as a possible back door through which hackers could monitor the whereabouts of the police.
In 2013, the Boston Police Department raised similar concerns when city management installed GPS in police cruisers. The ACLU also objected to the deployment of GPS in government vehicles, and called for greater efforts to protect all state residents, whether private or public, from “warrantless location tracking.” But the use of GPS in city police cruisers moved ahead and no problems ever surfaced with anyone hacking into the devices, the city’s police union president told the Globe

A long history of squabbles

In 1999, the San Diego County government decided to outsource its entire IT operation to the private sector. At the time, it was one of the biggest IT outsourcing contracts in state and local government. Even though the 200 county IT workers weren’t unionized, organized labor pushed hard against the initiative. Eventually, county managed to outsource its IT, but only a few local or state governments have followed the San Diego's path. 
How much of a factor union pressure has played in dampening any initiatives to outsource entire IT operations is hard to say. In the few other places where it has been done — Georgia, Texas, Virginia — problems have followed, but evidence points to poor execution, difficulties with delivering services by the private firm and other factors, not union resistance.
While IT outsourcing has been a major target of unions, they have also turned their attention to possible job loss from automation as the use of technology has spread throughout state and local government. It’s not a surprise, of course, since the primary mission of unions is to protect workers. Yet job loss didn’t happen during a surge in public-sector technology investments over several decades. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example, the number of state government workers grew steadily from 1960 until the Great Recession of 2008, when it started to plateau; during this time of job growth, states poured billions of dollars into information technology systems. 
Since the recession, a large number of jobs have disappeared at the local level, yet there’s little evidence that technology has helped to erase those jobs permanently. In 2015, total local government employment remained about a half-million below its peak in 2008. While a number of factors explain why those jobs haven’t returned, there’s no proof that information technology and automation were the reason they went away and have not returned.

Today transparency, tomorrow AI

As Massachusetts is finding out, today’s technology flashpoint with unions is around transparency. State and local governments are increasing the use of GPS in their fleets to improve performance, worker safety and to provide the public with accurate information about vehicle location. Think of the number of local government websites that now provide snowplowing updates in real time. But unions have argued that the devices intrude on worker privacy, sow distrust between labor and management, and that the technology isn’t worth the investment.
The number of body cameras in use by the police has exploded in recent years, all in an effort to increase transparency and to boost public trust in law enforcement. But body cameras are not universal. Police unions have raised concerns and have slowed their deployment in some communities. Union leaders in El Paso, Texas, have said they don’t oppose body cameras, but insist that management takes its time working out the details of how they will be used and how to pay for them. Similar issues have been raised by police unions in other cities.
Today’s newest technology has triggered another wave of angst that could become a union battleground. Artificial intelligence has been hyped as a technology that will finally strip out the mundane work that remains in the public sector, while making services and internal operations far more efficient. Reports on the future of AI, including one that forecast the technology could automate up to 30 percent of the tasks currently performed by government workers, have triggered alarms that AI could become the ultimate job killer.
Cooler heads have been more pragmatic about AI’s impact on the future workforce. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, has said the next technology wave will not lead to above average unemployment or the demise of work as we know it. Rather than panic about the technology, policy makers need to take steps to support AI for its ability to boost productivity and per-capita income overall. He specifically calls for more AI in state government operations.
Will unions resist AI? Or will they support it but ask the kinds of questions to ensure the technology is deployed properly and with safeguards to ensure it’s not used to cut costs but improve society? That would be the correct call.
Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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