(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. has agreed to union contract language governing its use of artificial intelligence, creating an avenue for workers to challenge how it deploys the evolving technology.
As part of negotiations with the Communications Workers of America – the first US collective bargaining in the company’s history – Microsoft has reached a tentative agreement on an AI article to include in a contract covering a few hundred staff at Microsoft’s video game studio ZeniMax.
The language incorporates Microsoft’s six previously announced AI principles, which commit the company to ensuring the systems “treat all people fairly” and “empower everyone and engage people.” In the new agreement, which was viewed by Bloomberg News, Microsoft commits to applying “these AI principles across all of our AI technologies to help employees achieve greater productivity, growth and satisfaction in the work they do.”
“The goal is to ensure tools and technologies benefit rather than harm workers,” according to the contract language. It then obligates Microsoft to inform the union any time its implementation of AI or other automation “may impact work performed” by union members, and if requested, to negotiate over the impact on employees.
Microsoft didn’t provide comment in response to inquiries.
The company has revamped almost its entire product lineup, including Office, Windows, search and security software, to add features based on OpenAI technology. The AI-enhanced software helps workers with a range of tasks — from coding to writing emails to keeping track of customer needs.
Microsoft calls its AI products copilots, which is meant to convey that they work with employees rather than replacing them. Still, Microsoft executives acknowledge the wider deployment of these and other kinds of AI tools will change people’s jobs and may have broader workforce impacts.
“It’s important with new technology that’s taking place that we make sure that there’s not any type of diminishment in what unions have fought for over the years,” CWA President Claude Cummings Jr. said in an interview. “Technology may change, but what unions stand for has not.”
While the language doesn’t establish detailed parameters, its inclusion in an enforceable union contract means that “Microsoft is bound to follow through,” Cummings said. Collective bargaining agreements generally include grievance procedures that can be invoked when either side believes the other has violated the terms, which can include escalating issues to mediation or arbitration.
Cummings said CWA isn’t against technological change, but wants to ensure workers have a say in the process, and that their job security, safety and benefits are protected. “I’ve worked for AT&T when telephones were the size of a breadbox,” he said. “Technology is going to continue to develop over the years, and the best way for workers to have a voice in how that technology is used in the workplace is by first of all being in a union and signing agreements such as this.”
The agreement with CWA offers Microsoft a recruiting advantage, Cummings said. “Microsoft is going to get the best young minds in this country,” added the union president, who hopes the deal will inspire more workers to unionize and other companies to follow Microsoft’s lead in agreeing to eschew union-busting.
In 2022, as it sought regulatory approval to buy Activision Blizzard Inc., Microsoft announced a new set of principles including a commitment to “collaborative approaches that will make it simpler” for workers to choose whether to unionize. When the ZeniMax workers sought to unionize, Microsoft distinguished itself from some peers by staying neutral rather than opposing their efforts.
AI has increasingly become a point of contention and negotiation in union contract talks. The agreement reached in September between Hollywood writers and studios, for example, includes provisions that the union says prevent writers from being forced to use software like ChatGPT, stop AI-generated material from being used to dilute writers’ credit and let the union challenge use of writers’ work to train AI systems.
--With assistance from Dina Bass.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.