Tough week for tech workers won’t be the last

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(Bloomberg) -- No worker seems safe this week. Inc. has decided that machines are better at figuring out what to sell than humans are. Microsoft Corp. wants to replace cashiers with sensors. Tesla Inc. is firing 9 percent of its workforce (Some of them seem to have Stockholm syndrome.) Qualcomm Inc. is cutting about 280 jobs. Broadcom Inc., another chipmaker, said on Thursday that it cut 1,100 jobs as a result of an acquisition.

In the case of Tesla and Qualcomm, the job cuts are particular to their businesses. Qualcomm is revaluating its data-center-chips venture, which lags behind Intel Corp. Tesla, of course, is Tesla. The company has burned through $5.4 billion since its founding, and Tesla faces pressure to boost its stock price ahead of $1.2 billion in convertible bonds maturing through early 2019.

Granted, companies hire and fire workers. Even in the case of Amazon’s continued march toward automation, there’s an important caveat: Amazon says it created 130,000 jobs last year. And I want to pre-empt getting called a Luddite by making clear that I don’t think robots are going to take our jobs, or at least not all of them. Unemployment is at the lowest level since 2000. But overall workforce participation has been underwhelming.

Personally, as a comfortable desk jockey, it’s alarming that automation is collar-blind. Blue and white collar workers alike could be replaced by machines. Unskilled laborers, a cashier, anybody whose job is repetitive, is under threat. Bloomberg has robots writing some news stories. So, too, are Amazon’s well-paid pricing analysts. For years, there have been warnings that even coders could eventually face down the forces of automation. Education won’t save you.

One response to the fear that robots will replace our jobs is to accept the reality that everyone might not need to have full-time employment. In response, some U.S. cities are experimenting with universal basic income. Stockton, California, is giving out $500 a month to 100 families in one such experiment. A similar pilot is running in Oakland, California.

My advice to everyone: Get a platform while you still can. If you don’t control an app, run an e-commerce store, have your own media business or at least manage a Twitch stream, you’re screwed. (Please follow me on Twitter. My future livelihood may depend on it.)

We live in an era of disposable workers. Automation is one component, but the rise of the contingent worker is just as important. When Uber Technologies Inc. needs you, it has a job for you, and when it doesn’t, well, you can take a nap in your car. A fifth of U.S. workers are contractors, according to an NPR/Marist poll. In April, the California Supreme Court made a ruling that could force companies to treat more workers as employees—but so far, little has changed. If you read that ruling closely, it’s an indictment of the legislature’s failure to protect workers.

On the federal level, worker protections are under siege. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that arbitration agreements can prevent workers from joining together in a class action lawsuit against their employers. That makes it harder to hold companies accountable. Liberal justices dissented, arguing that the ruling violated the National Labor Relations Act, which protects “concerted activities” by workers. By a 5 to 4 margin, the majority sided with corporations. All it would take to nullify the court’s ruling is an act of Congress. Don’t hold your breath.

While universal basic income can be intoxicating, at $500 a month, it’s hard to see how that’s a solution to our woes. To make matters worse, the wealth inequality discussion in America has been sidelined somewhat amid North Korea negotiations, Russia-related intrigue and Kanye mania. Nearly a year ago, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer promised a “better deal” from Democrats that would provide workers with the “tools they need for the 21st century economy.” We’re still waiting for a hammer.

You know things are bad for workers when rogue judges start to feel so bad for people that they’re looking for ways to forgive student debt. One bankruptcy judge told the Wall Street Journal, “If the law’s not going to be improved by Congress, we have to help these young people who are drowning in student loan debt.” Let's hope he has some success—before a robot takes his job.

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