A moment in time to tame technology

Published date
Unions should take advantage of their current relative strength to demand and secure the long term futures of their members in the face of the ‘rise of the robots’.

That's according to Kristen Broady from America’s influential Brookings Institute who wrote that “at a brief interlude of worker power unions should negotiate around automation not just pay. They should push employers to cover the costs of upskilling thereby ensuring long term stability for workers.” 

Her comments accord with a new Wales TUC report produced by the Labour Research Department, ‘Negotiating Automation and New Technology’.  It is for each trade union and branch to decide on their priorities.  However our report finds that while “it is as yet uncertain what the impact of new technology will mean … what is clear is that it’s an urgent issue and the time to act is now.”

Because once robots and automated systems are in place it is very difficult for workers to challenge them. You can't argue with a machine or computer programme! As a union movement we need to get ahead of the game and demand our rights before machines and algorithms have the upper hand.

Our new report offers ways workers can take the initiative. It gives inspiring examples, where workers have already struck deals to secure their future in a technological world. For instance, one huge rail firm, Germany's DB have agreed with their union on a series of steps to protect workers when new tech is introduced. The agreement sets out that the union will be involved with skills development, from evaluating what is needed for job roles, to working with training providers to redesign courses.  DB runs rail freight services in Britain.  Wouldn't it be great if other transport firms followed their lead with similar arrangements here?

New technology agreements are key to ensuring workers and not just their bosses benefit from new technology.  According to Broady, “training is key to this since firms frequently recapture the costs of training programmes either partially or fully through productivity gains unlocked by upskilled workers it is only right that that firms increase their investments in training initiatives.

Furthermore, workers should have a say on the quality of work when automation is introduced.  As a our report says, “There is plenty of experience to show that digital innovation does not automatically guarantee a decent standard of work. A collective agreement should make sure that, as technology transforms all types of occupations; it is not used as an excuse to devalue or deskill jobs or in any way demean workers and instead promotes Fair Work.”

In a similar vein speaking at a recent event on artificial intelligence, Shavanah Taj, Wales TUC General Secretary said “if companies are making more money through new technology then we the workers want a fair share in that too.”  

Indeed, linking innovation to improved terms and conditions is a key demand of our new report, which states that “the introduction of new technology to improve productivity should lead to better pay and conditions for members, whether that is a pay increase or a reduction in working time with no loss of pay.”

Our report also recommends action at national level to achieve tech gains for workers. It points to examples in Singapore and elsewhere where unions have agreed with employers and government in social partnership to protect and enhance workers roles when workplaces are automated.

Closer to home, Wales’ Workforce Partnership Council has recently published an agreement on Mapping the Transition to a Digital Workplace.  Unions, public sector employers and the government have agreed to five Fair Work principles in this area. Crucially these include commitments to retraining and respecting workers rights. Every public body in Wales funded by the Welsh government must now implement this agreement.

If it's true that this moment in time offers a period of opportunity for workers and unions then agreements like DB’s on the railways and that for the Welsh public sector offer a blueprint for workers to secure a chance to tame tech for their benefit.