Reps cited having limited purchase on shaping the introduction and deployment of technologies, and difficulty in breaking through to managers and employers about the human decisions behind seemingly ‘objective’ algorithmic targets.
This was particularly acute in highly competitive sectors such as retail. One union official said:
“As unions, we don't have access to the employers in terms of negotiating the introduction of technology. We are involved, but it's such a competitive marketplace that technology is rolled out regardless of unions’ views. The companies buy the technology and just go ahead and introduce it.”
They added that sometimes there was a "shambolic" consultation, which did not offer meaningful engagement. For example, one nationwide grocer introduced technologies for shoppers to scan their own groceries as they went through the store, without any consultation with unions. The official said the attitude of the retailers is merely stating “This is what we intend to do”.
Many examples from our research cited how a worker-centric approach to AI development and deployment could be beneficial for all stakeholders. Or how overlooking the skills and insights workers bring, and an over reliance on error prone systems, led to poor decision-making with damaging effects.
For example, a civil servant working on sensitive casework for members of the public cited the error rate of a new system that was promised to improve the service:
"As part of our work we pay fees to expensive expert external service providers. The system is now automated – ‘untouched by human hands.’ But it has a fault rate of 19 per cent! That’s compared to a 3 per cent fault rate for those payments which are manually inputted.”
At a large heavy industry site, health and safety reps cited a case where new technologies were installed without due engagement of the workforce leading to major challenges. For example, one worker recounted the almost comical story of the installation of a new operating desk to help automate a complicated piece of machinery. He said:
“They asked a member of staff to sit at the operating desk in the pulpit so they could design it around him. However, he was 6′ 10″. Now I can't use the operating desk without standing up!”
At this same site, reps reported that technology contributes to a growing distance between the workforce and management. According to the workers, it was undermining health and safety reporting, as well as exacerbating inefficiencies.
For example, a previously simple system for reporting and escalating accidental health and safety ‘near misses’ had been replaced:
“The new system is semi-automated on a computer. It prompts you and there are drop down boxes. It determines the level of investigation according to how serious the incident was. But it is too complex and it puts people off. We have criticised the system over and over again at the health and safety committee.”
The system was introduced without consultation and now the workers fear that incidents are not being reported.
This unilateral approach contrasts with other comparative nations. In Germany, for example, ‘works councils’ are legally able to be established at firm level in cooperation with trade unions to represent worker interests. This includes engaging employer funded independent experts to provide technical advice on understanding and negotiating digital technologies.
In summary, the ability to exercise worker voice and participation was generally reported as low. However, experience of negotiating new technologies varied across sectors, especially between manufacturing on the one hand and the creative industries on the other.
When used in conjunction with industrial processes, the union saw AI as the latest in a long line of technologies which could automate tasks. They reflected on many decades of technological development and automation. One said:
“In the 1990s when new machinery was installed, staff were given extra money as their jobs required more training and more skill.”
They said that consultation had worsened, but the union still had enough strength and technical knowledge of the workplace and relevant regulations to intervene, as this testimony shows:
“when new software is introduced you're told ‘this is it’ [...] There’s no engagement really, workers are left alone on the shop floor. People feel undervalued. Sometimes a new system was put in and we were told to get on with it. Until it’s pointed out to them that it’s breaking health and safety law.”
As such, these manufacturing unions - with high union density and experience of industrial relations - were already equipped with some of the organising and negotiating techniques and knowledge of legal protections to engage with management.
By contrast, workers and unions without significant experience of collective organising regarding technology have had to respond to a dramatically changed environment, produce new policy and guidance for members, as well as engage in wider political campaigning.
In conclusion, despite the challenges, unions are responding to the introduction of AI. They are using tried and trusted procedures and developing new ones, all with the aim of ensuring the new tools benefit all workers. Therefore, as a next step, Wales TUC will continue supporting the development and advocacy of trade union policy ideas that protect and extend workers’ rights and workplace empowerment.