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Union members are already working with robots – let's help them to reap the benefits

Tony Burke Guest
Published date
In 2015 Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England addressed a TUC meeting in London. His key theme was the coming technological revolution – known as ‘Industry 4.0’.

He predicted a ‘hollowing out’ of jobs due to automation, smart factories, 3D printing and web-based platforms, among other advanced technologies.

Since then the threat and impact of automation and the digital revolution has concentrated the minds of companies, industries, politicians and trade unions.

In Unite – the UK’s biggest union with a wide-ranging membership  in manufacturing, the service sector, transport and public services – we recognise that ‘Industry 4.0’ will have a significant impact on the world of work, notably in manufacturing. We know we must plan for how we handle it.

Robots, cobots, 3D printing, and connected and networked technology, are nothing new to many Unite members.

Workers in the automotive sector have long experienced the extensive use of robotics. The media regularly use film of robots building the world-beating Mini at Cowley. Our members in aerospace and engineering work with 3D printing, and we have companies who are installing ‘cobots’ working alongside our members.

According to Unite research, industries like these – along with engineering, chemicals and bioscience – will be on the front line.

Robots are now becoming increasingly mobile; smart factories networked internally and globally to supply chains and their production technology and devices are able communicate and exchange big data with each other in the production and distribution process.

Learning from the past three industrial revolutions (first mechanisation, water & steam power; second, mass production and assembly lines; third, computerisation); trying to hold back the fourth revolution of cyber systems including robotics will be like trying to ‘un-invent electricity’.

Unite has also discussed and met with like-minded unions from countries where they are also moving ahead on how to tackle automation.

We’ve worked with IG Metall in Germany and our Nordic comrades discussing what they are doing to control and harness technology and to protect employment.

Of course in these countries industrial collective agreements on technological developments and change are reached through negotiations between unions and employers at company level and sometimes at sectoral level – providing a plan and a pathway and protecting employment.

Unfortunately in the UK the current Government’s approach has piece meal – their new Industrial Strategy is vague – despite some good work by Juergen Maier CEO of Siemens who has the lead Industrial Digitalisation Review on Industry 4.0.  

Automation, robotics and smart factories are also all too often grouped together with other major technological developments, such as electric and autonomous vehicles and web based platform services.

Vehicles – electric, hybrid and driverless – still have to be manufactured and they must have an infrastructure. But it’s future mobility that will make the difference. That’s why Unite will be publishing our strategy for the development of electric cars and the infrastructure, autonomous vehicles and future mobility in the UK.

Burgeoning web based platform services have created ‘the gig economy’.  In reality this is a massive pool of zero hours, bogus self-employed, hire and fire, precarious labour which extends beyond pizza delivery and ride hailing companies.

There is no one size fits all solution on how to tackle this technological change.

Having strong unions with thought through policies in place, can tackle the impact of automation and the digital revolution. So, rather than wait to be confronted by technological change, industry-by-industry, or company-by-company, Unite consulted with union reps on how we should respond.

In manufacturing our reps said that we should respond to these changes strategically, by utilising our industrial strength to secure technology agreements with companies and employers.

Unite is seeking agreements that provide for job protection, skills enhancement, shorter working time (including shorter and flexible hours, longer holidays and better retirement policies), work and salary guarantees based on production volumes and service delivery, sectoral collective bargaining, more and better jobs in research and development and education as well as information and consultation based on technology committees working with companies, new style apprenticeships, life-long learning and training for members in new skills for the future.

Unions and our members are facing a technological transformation at work. It’s better to shape and harness technology or face future where we may become irrelevant.

Unite believes unions need policies and a manifesto for the 21st Century workplace which are integral to a modern industrial and manufacturing strategy.

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