Labor Unions and Robots: What Happens In Vegas Isn't Likely to Stay There

Labor Unions and Robots: What Happens In Vegas Isn't Likely to Stay There
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It was bound to happen. Attempts to slow down the pace of automation are making their way to the top of the union agenda. The first major battle is taking place in Las Vegas. But in this case, what happens in Vegas isn’t likely to stay in Vegas.

The city that never sleeps has been the site of a battle waged by the Culinary Workers and the Bartenders unions to prevent or slow the introduction of new technologies at Vegas hotels. The union threatened to strike largely based on these issues, before reaching settlements with Caesar’s and MGM Resorts. (Details of the agreements have yet to be released.)

The city isn’t the first place where the backlash against technological progress has reared its head. A growing realization that jobs aren’t going to Mexico or China so much as to robots and other technologies has spawned a new ludditism, aimed at clinging to jobs by stopping or at least slowing the advance of technology. The same job-protection impulse that drives opposition to free trade is now being directed at new technologies. In New York, for example, cabbies are demanding a ban on self-driving cars. In most cities, the companies are trying to block ride-sharing services.

But it isn’t surprising that the first major union battle over the introduction of artificial intelligence is taking place in the gambling mecca. A majority of Nevada’s workers are employed in legacy service sector jobs especially susceptible to automation. Redlands University economist Johannes Moenius calls Las Vegas “the epicenter of a potential wave of automation.” He estimates that about 65 percent of the current jobs in the city may be automated within the next 20 years – including over 70 percent of hotel jobs.

One can already find many examples of leading-edge automation at Vegas hotels. Not only are many rolling out self-check-in kiosks, and voice recognition technology for guests ordering room service, but the Renaissance Hotel has robot butlers that deliver towels and toiletries to guests. A bar has replaced its bartender with two large cocktail-mixing robot arms. Not surprisingly, the name of the drinking spot is “The Tipsy Robot.”

But the unions are trying to move back the clock. “We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs,” says union secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline. But if new technologies that shed jobs had been blocked in the past, we would not have automobiles (which eliminated jobs for carriage makers and blacksmiths), air travel (replacing trains), or even the telephone (which replaced telegrams.)

Arguello-Kline also argues that the hotel industry “must innovate without losing the common touch.” But most travellers, especially early adapters, business travelers and Millennials, want new AI services, such as web-based travel services, and use of smart phones to book rooms, change reservations, order room service and pay bills. It seems that rather than a common touch, travelers increasingly want heretofore uncommon services.

It comes down to a straightforward question: Whom are hotels built to serve? One can only feel empathy for workers who face the risk of job loss to technology, but the answer is that hotels are meant to serve their guests. If the best, most efficient, and most desired way to serve guests is through the increased adoption of AI, that is exactly what will happen. The customer truly is always right, because customers are the ones that hotels – and all businesses – are built for.

This is certainly not the first time the needs of consumers have come up against workers’ desire for job security. The inauguration of direct long-distance dialing over 65 years ago prompted unions to argue that AT&T had created what they called technological unemployment on a mass scale. The introduction of direct dial did indeed lead to jobs being shed. In the late 1940s, more than 350,000 operators worked for AT&T. But it also created convenience and efficiency for telephone users. The result wasn’t fewer jobs but more, as a more efficient economy generated more wealth.

AI – in Las Vegas and elsewhere – will do the same thing today. In shedding jobs, smart robots and other advanced technologies can also improve our quality of life – and our economy. You can bet on it.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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