Artificial Intelligence Emerges as a Union-Buster – The American Prospect

How one employer used AI against workers even when the technology fell short
September 7, 2023
5:00 AM
Matt Born/The Star-News via AP
Participants in the first annual NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Walk in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, March 3, 2018. NEDA is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support to people with eating disorders.
Earlier this year, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) abruptly laid off its entire helpline staff. The announcement came just two weeks after the helpline workers voted to form a union, Helpline Associates United (HLAU). Workers were informed that they were being replaced by an artificial-intelligence chatbot named Tessa.
NEDA, the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support to people struggling with eating disorders, launched the helpline in 1999. The organization claimed that the layoffs were unrelated to the success of the union effort—a claim that the workers and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union representing them, categorically dismissed. Rather than having a phone helpline staffed by human workers, the association planned to run an online chat helpline operated exclusively by Tessa.
Helpline staff continued their work when NEDA did a soft launch of the bot in late May. But within days, major problems emerged. People shared stories on social media about their disturbing experiences with Tessa; in one case, it dispensed weight loss advice. But shortly before NEDA planned to entirely eliminate the phone helpline and transition to Tessa on June 1, the organization announced that it would shut down both the helpline and the chatbot. NEDA no longer offers any resources by phone or online chat.
More from Elizabeth Meisenzahl
Many workers have major concerns about AI taking jobs from human employees. But in the case of NEDA, as soon as the organization concluded that the AI chatbot could not handle specific queries or situations, they shut down the helpline altogether rather than rehire their unionized staff—a move that hurt not only the staff members, but also the many callers they served. AI put a 21st-century twist on classic union-busting.
For Abbie Harper, a helpline volunteer since 2019 who eventually became a NEDA staff member, the combination of union-busting and eliminating resources for people with eating disorders was appalling. One of the biggest red flags for Harper was the inability of Tessa to pick up on language that indicated a user was suicidal or in danger of harming themselves. Eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any mental illness; one-quarter of individuals with eating disorders will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
The decision to replace staff with the chatbot was especially galling, Harper said, because of the difficulty helpline staff faced in trying to convince NEDA to provide them with better training especially to handle situations with callers who expressed suicidal thoughts. NEDA knew this was an issue even for empathetic human staff members but still chose to replace them with a chatbot.
“AI cannot provide empathy because it has no lived experience,” Harper says.
The biggest threat AI poses to workers, at least for the time being, is unlikely to be its potential to fully replace them.
Other national organizations are attempting to fill the eating disorders resources gap, but meeting the need for treatment was a problem even before the NEDA helpline shut down. During the COVID-19 pandemic, eating disorders surged and wait times for treatment extended to months at a time.
Allie Weiser, a licensed psychologist and helpline staff member at the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, said that her organization’s helpline has received a record number of calls this summer, though she could not definitively attribute the growth in calls to the shutdown of NEDA’s helpline. To her, the human element of the helpline is irreplaceable for the many callers who need support and treatment.
“As humans we want to connect with other humans, and that’s how we feel heard and seen and understood,” Weiser says. “What creates a better chance of reaching out and getting help is talking to a human who understands and connects you to resources.”
Keith Hogarty, the CWA organizer who worked with NEDA helpline staff to establish their union, told the Prospect that in his 20 years as an organizer, he had never personally seen such a blatant case of retaliation against workers for forming a union. Ultimately, Hogarty, CWA, and the helpline staff decided that the workers would be best served by negotiating a severance package rather than pursuing a legal case against NEDA. If the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of NEDA, the workers would be left with nothing. And even if the workers won, Hogarty says, it was likely that NEDA would simply bring them back and let them go in a legal way immediately thereafter.
The biggest threat AI poses to workers, at least for the time being, is unlikely to be its potential to fully replace them. From NEDA to Hollywood, where striking Writers Guild members have expressed serious concerns about the technology, the mere threat of replacement by AI, no matter how far it may be in the future, is enough for management to use as a cudgel against worker organizing. At its heart, the NEDA debacle spotlights corporations’ and nonprofits’ willingness to attack unions and retaliate against workers. AI, even in its early stages, has simply become another weapon in their arsenal.
Elizabeth Meisenzahl is an editorial intern at The American Prospect.
September 7, 2023
5:00 AM
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