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Are the Teamsters Trying to Kill Driverless Tech, or Save the Truck Drivers?

Perhaps both.
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A truck stands idle on Interstate 15 near San Bernardino, California.

Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.


In 1955, legendary socialist labor leader Walter Reuther toured a Ford car factory in Cleveland. As the head of the nation's largest workers' union was being shown around, a Ford executive is purported to have pointed at a newly automated machine asking, "How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?"

But among the litany of concerns being raised by organized labor as artificial intelligence prepares to take the wheel, union dues are small fries. In September, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan SELF-DRIVE ACT, which would allow 100,000 autonomous vehicles to be street-tested each year without meeting federal vehicle safety standards that currently govern all automobiles on the road. Under the bill's proposed regime, large commercial trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds would not be exempted from the traditional federal vehicle safety regulations.

Shortly after the House's passage, the Senate introduced the AV START ACT, a similar bill that has been far more controversial. Despite attempts to speed up its passage by Commerce Committee head John Thune (R-South Dakota), the bill has stalled in the face of prominent objectors. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), senator from the home state of many prominent autonomous vehicle developers like Waymo and Uber, has been a vocal skeptic. "People need to be assured, and they need to be assured over time," Feinstein told Recode in January. "You can't just dump something on a freeway and have people looking over saying, 'My God, there's no driver.'" Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) also called for waiting, expressing reservations to Recode about the "emerging and unproven technology."

Even more pushback over self-driving vehicles has come from union representatives. As Congress considers the bills, the Teamsters have lobbied for a cautious approach, pushing for more deliberation, fewer changes to the current vehicular regulations, and, ultimately, for slower adoption of self-driving vehicles. Raising concerns about workplace safety and job losses, they successfully pushed the House to exclude large commercial vehicles from its bill. The 1.4 million member union includes 600,000 people whose job takes place behind a wheel.

To better understand the Teamsters' position on the evolving legislation and discuss how the union is preparing for a more automated future, Pacific Standard spoke to Sam Loesche and Kara Deniz, respectively the Teamsters' legislative representative and spokesperson.


Do the Teamsters have an official position on self-driving vehicles?

Kara Deniz: It's something we're concerned about. It's an emerging technology, and we believe that a presence of a guild and trained drivers are important for its operation, now and into the future.

Sean Loesche: There needs to be a re-examination of what commercial operations are in a future that could have autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles performing roles and jobs that [human-driven] vehicles perform today. A fleet of autonomous ride-hailing services that operate around the city may need to be regulated [differently] than when the existing motor vehicle definitions were written. Typically, [regulatory] divisions have to do with the size, shape, and primary purpose of the vehicle. That may change if a vehicle's only designation and manufacturing intention is for commercial operation. It may require a change in how we classify these things, how we regulate and legislate for them, if they are operating solely in a commercial space.

What kind of drivers make up the 600,000 Teamsters? It's my understanding that a lot of long-haul truck drivers have been largely unable to unionize because they're classified as independent contractors by their employers.

KD: They could be anything from a taxi driver, public transit driver, a school bus driver, the more traditional 18-wheeler, and we have 250,000 members at UPS, including package car drivers.

But yes, [driver misclassification] is a big problem. We've seen that at the ports. For a long time we've been working—it's called Justice for Port Drivers—through the Teamsters to try to change standards and work on this issue there. So it's interesting to hear companies talking about driverless and the role of the driver; these are some of the same companies who do not even claim their employees. By referring to them as 'independent contractors' the companies absolve themselves of responsibility to the drivers, who end up making minimum wage with no health insurance, workers' compensation, or Social Security.

As Congress drafted driverless vehicle bills this past year, the Teamsters lobbied for the exemption of commercial vehicles from this legislation, and the current versions of the legislation include this exemption. Why should we treat commercial and non-commercial vehicles differently?

SL: The [initial] framework for both the AV START Act and the Self-Drive Act was wrong for commercial operations. It doesn't take into account—and wasn't meant to take into account—the kind of thing that we in the commercial driving world experience every day, whether it's the existing rules and regulations around driver rest requirements, size and weight requirements on trucks, the state-based limits around when and where some of these vehicles can operate, as well as the unique safety requirements that an 80,000 pound truck can present vs. small passenger cars. You can't ignore those facets, and try to plug commercial trucks into bills that were meant to specifically deal with cars.

How was the framework wrong for the regulations you mentioned, like driver rest requirements?

SL: The problem is that presumption that they would truly be driverless. In our view, a lot of the technology won't be truly driverless. It won't be what they call Level 5 autonomous operations. It will be some hybrid of the two. The current rules and regulations that we have don't even take into account that possibility. As the technology matures and becomes ready for prime time, they should be willing to put in place safety rules that account for the changes that will occur to a driver's workplace, for things that don't exist today.

While I understand that a large truck could cause more damage than a car, shouldn't we want to hold our cars to an equally stringent standard of safety?

SL: That presumes that—on the technical side—the controls and systems that are operating the cars are the same for trucks. The skills and limitations of the truck itself are at times much more complicated than a car. Stopping distances, maneuverability, what happens in a longer combination vehicle where you have multiple trailers attached to each other. How you maneuver and operate those when the load in the trailer itself is positioned in an odd way that may further limit your mobility. What happens when you are driving a 75,000-pound load and there's a high wind burst as you're going over a crest of a mountain—that may sway or tip your truck itself, and the driver may need to react in a way that we have no confidence that the systems that have been developed so far can take into account.

Long-haul driving can be a grueling job. Are the Teamsters amenable to the possibility that semi-automation might actually improve conditions for workers?

KD: We're not opposed to technology by any means, but we want these developments to be positive and lead to positive change. Our role is to make sure that we have very clear guidelines that govern our roads as increasing levels of automation take place. We want to ensure that [automation is] not used to take advantage of workers, and to make sure that the workers are not made scapegoats for any issues that might occur with the technology, which is why we want the technology to be transparent, to be open, and to know exactly what is happening in the press releases where you hear so much about automated vehicles and trucks.

SL: We also need to know what data is being collected on their daily life, and if it could be used for disciplinary purposes or only tell a part of the picture. [We need to] make sure that there are protections in place for a worker to have a fair trial.

New technology often leads to the creation of new, different kinds of jobs—not direct analogues to the jobs that it may have automated, but often technicians and people that need to oversee this technology. Could driverless vehicles create more unionized jobs down the road?

KD: I think it's important to have those conversations on the local level, when the topic of contract negotiation comes up. In San Francisco, one of our locals there worked with a robotics company that develops the little robots that go on the road and delivers groceries and stuff. They said: "Hey, we're not going to stand in the way of this innovation, we want to support it, but we want to make sure that if we're going to allow these robots to be running on the streets of San Francisco, we're going to do it in a smart way, and make sure that there is regulation of how many they can have, and how they can operate, so that there are certain areas where they can operate, but that union jobs are created, so they're going to be well-paying jobs."

Obviously safety and workplace condition are vital, but is some of the Teamsters' concern with the bill and the commercial vehicle exemption more focused on preserving jobs?

SL: Workforce issues are a key component of this, no question. That needs to be in the forefront of everyone's mind as they are dealing with commercial vehicles, and I think it already is. There are monster workforce issues, whether it's in trucking, or in taxi-cab driving, or anyone else who drives shuttles or light-duty vehicles for a living, that need to be understood and be proactively solved: by Congress, by state legislatures, by governors, by anyone who has a constituency who would be impacted. This could be a population in size and scope that could be—if not have jobs eliminated, have the wages of work, have the wages and structures, and benefits and structure of their day completely eroded, in a way we haven't seen in the history of the country. It needs to be done correctly, it needs to be examined, and it needs to be done right.

Both a European Union Commission and Bill Gates recently proposed a "robot tax" on companies that displace workers with automation. Such a tax could be used to fund worker retraining programs or a universal basic income. Are there any legislative redresses that the Teamsters are considering pushing to offset potential job losses due to automation?

SL: We're looking at all options on the table. Retraining is an important piece of this equation, but it needs to be understood by everyone from the outset that retraining alone is not going to be [the main] problem. To us, the biggest threat immediately is likely to be not just direct job losses, but an erosion of the quality of middle-class commercial driving jobs across the country. When I say erosion, I mean a guy who is currently operating within the federal hours of service regulations for eight, nine, 10 hours a day, he or she will be looked at by a company that is utilizing a higher level of automation in their truck to work longer and longer hours each and every day. It could be to an extent that they aren't getting paid the same wages that they are now for some of the work that they're doing. That could cut the legs out from what now is a good middle-class job, for a lot of folks who only have a high school education.

KD: Even if a robot tax were to end up being feasible, let's not discount the option that the system that we have right now, having people in the workplace works. Universal basic income—one component of it that is missing is the importance of going to a job every day. It's not just an income thing (although that's why people work, obviously), but what would people do? Most of these companies say we're not looking to get rid of the driver. And I believe most of them, but companies are putting billions of dollars [into developing automated technologies] for a purpose.

Have you seen a difference across party lines with regard to the legislative concerns you've been raising?

SL: Both bills have been bipartisan, but we've seen difference in focus by Democrats and Republicans. I won't characterize it as just one party or the other; to be honest, we've seen a lot [of concern] from Republicans in dealing with what they see as terrifying workforce prospects for their own constituents, especially in what are traditionally conservative, rural districts, where trucking is one of the bastions of middle-class job opportunities in their districts. They have as much incentive and fear around this technology as anyone. And we're pleased to say they've been acting accordingly.

The rare rural Republican-Teamster coalition—we've found it.

SL: A rare, but mighty faction.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.