Bernie Sanders: workers should reap AI benefits in form of ‘lowering workweek’

By: Ramon Antonio Vargas; The Guardian

Vermont senator says technology should benefit ‘not just people on top’ as he cites financial stresses confronting most Americans

If the US’s ongoing artificial intelligence and robotics boom translates into more work being done faster, then laborers should reap some of the gains of that in the form of more paid time off, the liberal US senator Bernie Sanders said Sunday.

“I happen to believe that – as a nation – we should begin a serious discussion … about substantially lowering the workweek,” Sanders remarked on CNN’s State of the Union.

Citing the parenting, housing, healthcare and financial stresses confronting most Americans while generally shortening their life expectancies, he added: “It seems to me that if new technology is going to make us a more productive society, the benefits should go to the workers.

“And it would be an extraordinary thing to see people have more time to be able to spend with their kids, with their families, to be able to do more … cultural activities, get a better education. So the idea of … making sure artificial intelligence [and] robotics benefits us all – not just the people on top – is something, absolutely, we need to be discussing.”

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with congressional Democrats, delivered those comments after State of the Union host Jake Tapper asked him about the four-day work week sought by the United Auto Workers. About 13,000 workers from that union went on strike Friday against the nation’s three biggest carmakers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler-parent company Stellantis – after walking away from negotiations to renew a contract that expired at the end of the previous day.

Tapper asked Sanders, who appeared Friday at a rally in support of the strike, whether the concept of a shortened work week may simply be a negotiating tactic that the UAW would abandon when some of its other demands were met. But Sanders defended the validity of the demand while also seizing the moment to reiterate criticisms of the gaudy salaries collected by the car manufacturers’ executives.

Sanders – the chairperson of the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee – alluded to how the CEOs of GM, Ford and Stellantis had pocketed hundreds of times more than their workers’ median wage. Their pay jumped by 40% between 2013 and 2022 while their workers’ real hourly earnings fell by about a fifth since 2008, according to the Economics Policy Institute.

According to the UAW, the disparity has shown how workers were never fully compensated for the sacrifices their bosses asked of them after the 2008-09 financial crisis, when they agreed to numerous cuts in the name of bailing out the auto industry. Demands from the union’s striking members include a 40% wage increase, better retirement benefits and job security protections – in addition to the 32-hour work week.

Seventy-five percent of Americans support the striking auto workers, according to a recent poll from Gallup.

Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the strike could unsettle the US economy as a whole and may eventually mean higher car prices for already distressed commuters.

Meanwhile, the UAW’s president, Shawn Fain, told MSNBC and CBS on Sunday that progress had been mostly slow in the talks between his union and the carmakers.

Speaking to Tapper before Sanders’s appearance, former Republican US vice-president Mike Pence sought to blame the Joe Biden White House for auto workers’ dissatisfaction.

“All those hardworking auto workers are living in the same reality every other Americans live, and that is wages are not keeping up with inflation,” Pence said.

But Sanders contended that the car industry’s top executives are solely to blame for the strike.

“American people are sick and tired, in my view, … of corporate greed, in which the very richest people are becoming richer,” Sanders said. “What you’re seeing in the automobile industry, in my view, is what we’re seeing all over this economy – greed on the top, suffering on the part of the working class, and people are tired of it.

“You people on top – you’ve never had it so good. … So UAW is standing up against corporate greed. And I applaud them for what they’re doing.”