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How can unions prepare for the future of work?

How can unions prepare for the future of work?

  • 16 July 2018 17:02

The future of work is gaining media profile, with apocalyptic stories about robots taking our jobs or the benefits of AI seeming to appear almost daily. But beyond the sensationalist headlines there is a serious agenda for trade unions

How will new technology impact the labour market? How are firms integrating AI into their management structures? What new skills might workers need to prepare them for the future?

These were a few of the questions explored by Prospect delegates in the Future of Work breakout session at national conference in Birmingham in June. The session was addressed by two experts in the field, Lesley Giles the head of the Work Foundation, a think tank focused on ‘good work’ and Professor Mark Skilton from Warwick Business School who specialises in AI and change within businesses.

After the session I sat down with Lesley and Mark to probe a little further into the topic. The first thing that became clear is that neither of them embraced a ‘big bang’ theory of how the future would play out, where technology would reshape the landscape of work almost overnight.

Instead both agreed that the changes in the years ahead would be more evolution than revolution, with Lesley making the point that even within workplaces there are significant discrepancies in the adoption and dissemination of technology and working practices.

Mark argued that we needed to think seriously about how society would have to adapt to accommodate these changes, otherwise we may end up in an almost ‘medieval’ situation of wealth inequality.

He pointed out that some countries and cities were experimenting with new forms of labour taxation, such as the Seattle Head Tax, and argued that what might have to happen is the introduction of a new form of corporation tax that seeks to capture the economic benefit of automation and redistribute it around the economy.

Both Lesley and Mark believed that education and training were important parts of the landscape around new technologies going forward, and both agreed that this had to be more inventive than previous attempts at retraining or reskilling workers.

Lesley in particular argued that we do not understand enough about how people learn and that an approach based on classroom learning will not work. Instead we should be looking toward experiential learning, with people having education integrated better into their working lives rather than seeing it as separate to the normal rhythm of work.

My final question to Lesley and Mark was about what they though trade unions needed to be doing in light of the changes that we know are coming down the track. For Mark the priority for the union movement had to be protecting incomes in the age of automation.

With the new industrial revolution causing income disruption across the economy, he believed there was a role for unions to play in measuring this disruption and arming themselves with the information necessary to argue for new models or new policies.

This should develop into a new charter on the future of work, he argued, with unions at the forefront of setting the standards that should guide working practices in a world of robots and artificial intelligence.

For Lesley the answer is a mix of new attitudes and new structures. First, she argued, the union movement needs a shift of outlook towards embracing technological change and its impact on the workplace rather than fearing it. There is the potential for many of these changes to be hugely beneficial for workers if they are channelled in the right way.

But new thinking is not enough. The problem of scaling new innovations through the economy will require new structures with businesses and unions working together to disseminate both new technology and new methods for adapting them to workplaces in a way that balances the interests of employers and employees. This will make sure that change happens on the ground, rather than just at a policy level.

This issue is clearly not going away and Mark and Lesley's insights form an excellent starting point for thinking about how unions should navigate through this new landscape.

Prospect will continue to work on this agenda, drawing on the insight of our members and experts in the field.

Tom Railton

Tom Railton


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