The most important news story in recent days is one that has gone practically unnoticed in the media: the threat by 50,000 Las Vegas hotel and casino workers to go on strike. They fear that they will be replaced by robots.
As kitchen workers, concierges and receptionists are increasingly replaced by robots – as will accountants, lawyers and journalists – you will see a growing wave of anti-tech, anti-automation protests around the world.
Already, we have seen protests by taxi drivers in Paris, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires against Uber and other technology firms that have disrupted the transportation world. And we have seen a public outcry against Facebook and other big tech firms following the scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s access to private data of more than 50 million Facebook users, which has been linked to the Trump campaign.
The next wave of public discontent may be aimed at job-threatening robots. A 2013 Oxford University study by Carl B. Frey and Michael A. Osborne – whom, for full disclosure, I have interviewed extensively for a book I wrote on this issue that’s due to be released this year – predicted that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation in the next 15 years.
In a May 23 vote, 99 percent of the 25,000 Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union members who cast their ballots voted to go on strike when their contract expired June 1. In addition to higher pay and job security against robots, they demanded that casinos take stronger measures against sexual harassment and immigration-related abuses.
“I voted yes to go on strike to ensure my job isn’t outsourced to a robot,” said Chad Neanover, a cook at the Margaritaville hotel, according to the union’s web page. “We know technology is coming, but workers shouldn’t be pushed out and left behind.”
Culinary Workers Union secretary treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline said in a statement that, “We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs. Our industry must innovate without losing the human touch.”
A study by the University of Redlands says that 65.2 percent of jobs in Las Vegas have the potential of being automated over the next 10 to 20 years.
At the Tipsy Robot bar within the Planet Hollywood casino in Las Vegas, there already are robots making cocktails. According to the Tipsy Robot web page, its robots “have the capacity to produce 120 drinks per hour.”
It adds that, “Our mechanical marvels use exact measurements, ensuring a perfectly crafted sip every time. They have killer dance moves, too.”
At the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas hotel, a 4-foot-tall robotic concierge recently started offering assistance about hotel services and directions. At the Las Vegas Renaissance Hotel, meanwhile, two room delivery robots can take food or drinks to your room.
Culinary Union spokeswoman Bethany Khan told me that, “We don’t oppose technology, but we want to have a say in how technology is implemented in our workforce.” Among other things, she told me, people displaced by technology should be retrained, “so that workers have the opportunity to grow with technology, versus being laid off.”
Most likely, the Las Vegas casino workers will not be able to stop the robotization of many of their jobs. Since English textile workers known as the Luddites in the 19th century destroyed weaving machines to protest the growing mechanization of their work, there have been many efforts by labor unions to stop automation. Most of them have failed.
The big question is whether the transition to a world of robots will be brutal, leaving millions of people jobless, or be gradual, providing training to allow displaced workers get better jobs. If it’s the latter, the world may become a better place, and greater productivity may allow us to provide a universal basic income to everyone.
The robotization of work – and the growing rebellion against it – will be the big story of the 21st century. Even though most people still have not noticed, it’s already happening – and the contention in Las Vegas makes clear.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.