For employers, one of the best things about drones is that drones will never, ever unionize. You had best believe that plenty of companies are salivating at the prospect of replacing persnickety human laborers with fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles that will uncomplainingly complete menial tasks at all hours while never demanding bonuses, or health care, or parental leave.
But drones are just tools, like any other, and if some employers hope to use them to save on labor costs, then there’s nothing saying that workers can’t also use drones to protect their positions—or at least to dissuade employers from devaluing their labor. Something of the sort is happening in Philadelphia, and it’s the first story of its kind that I have seen. The Associated Press reports that Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has acquired three camera-equipped drones, which it is deploying across the city as a means of recording violations at work sites, amplifying its protests against nonunion employers, and “protect[ing] the union from false claims against it,” in the union’s own words.
In January, Local 98 released a drone-filmed YouTube video announcing its “Drone Surveillance Program (D.S.P.)” The video captured a union protest outside a local hotel, and while the demonstration was otherwise pretty typical—a few dozen people standing on the sidewalk and street, a couple of gigantic inflatable rats, a big truck blocking an intersection—the aerial vantage makes it seem much more dramatic than it probably seemed on the ground. (The soundtrack—Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”—adds to the effect, too.)
“There’s some suspicion that this video was placed out there to chill any ideas other developers might have about a construction project in the city of Philadelphia that might not utilize union labor,” a local lawyer told the AP. Well, of course that’s why the video was placed out there. It’s hard to watch the video, and hear the refrain “I always feel like somebody’s watching meeeeeee” come across the soundtrack, without realizing that this is meant mostly as a message to local employers.
(The video certainly wasn’t put on YouTube because the demonstration itself was anything special; indeed, the protesters in the video aren’t really protesting so much as staring at the drone, and pointing at it, and filming the drone with their own cameras.)
But it’s also a message to workers, I think. The Local 98 drone program is a valuable reminder that drones and other automata are not inherently tools of disempowerment. I would love to see more unions and labor groups using drones in efforts to protect workers’ rights. I should probably note here that I have belonged to the beer vendors’ union in Chicago since 2000. I like my union a lot, but I really cannot envision any of its leaders ever deploying a drone; my sense is that most other union local leaders across the country are just as technologically disinclined. But maybe I’m wrong! “We are clever,” Local 98 president John Dougherty told Pat Loeb of CBS Philly. “I have a lot of young people around me these days who are into social media and all cutting-edge apparatus, and whatever we need to do to be competitive within the rules, we’re going to do.” Workers of the world, unite, and go pick up some quadcopters at Best Buy.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.