Tony Boobier is a former worldwide technology executive who now provides advisory and mentoring services to new and established organizations. Qualified in engineering, insurance, marketing, and supply chain management, he has a particular interest in European, Asian, and Latin American markets. Independently identified as a global thought leader, he is the author of four published books on the topics of AI and analytics, including ‘Advanced Analytics and AI: Impact, Implementation and the Future of Work’. His ‘lockdown project’ comprised his 4th book, ‘AI and the Future of the Public Sector,’ which was released in August 2022. He lives near London. www.tonyboobier.co.uk.
AI transformation of industries and professions seem to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. People are asking how will jobs and industries change, and what will that change look like? Fewer are asking, equally importantly, how will workers’ rights be protected during this period of potential turbulence?
At the moment most of the discussion seems to be mainly at a technological and operational level. How will processes be affected, what sort of technologies will be implemented, how and by who? In the private sector, conversations are happening about what are the potential costs that can be saved by employers through automation and robotics? Questions are also being asked how investment in change can result in increased profitability and increased stock value downstream?
Elsewhere, the public sector is also under siege at the moment. Pressures on cost exist, many of which are a hangover from the Pandemic. Elsewhere citizens are asking for more, as they benchmark the quality of public service against the levels of service received from the private sector in terms of retailing, media and communication. The public sector which has struggled for years through underinvestment is stretched to even maintain current service levels going forward, let alone improve what they can provide in the future. It is no longer just a matter of additional funding. The reality is that most of the traditional processes have become outdated as a result of demographic and other changes, and it will take more than digitalisation of existing systems to find a sustainable way forward. The introduction of advanced technologies is an inevitable part of the solution, even if it is likely to be difficult to implement due to the breadth and depth of the problem.
But perhaps we need to take a deep breath, perhaps take a moment of reflection, and to look through the other end of the proverbial telescope. What will all these changes mean for the workforce both in the private and public sectors, not only in terms of levels of employment but also the right and entitlements of the workforce?
Financial services company Goldman Sachs say that as many as 300 million jobs could be lost through automation in the US and Europe, comprising 25 per cent of all work tasks. Management consultants McKInsey say that as many as 12 million jobs could be lost in the US by 2030. Optimists say that these jobs will be replaced by other new jobs, many of which have yet to be invented but time will only tell if that’s anywhere near right.
In the meantime, workers are increasingly wondering what this means for them at a personal level. A simple rule of thumb is for them to imagine what part of their job cannot be replaced by a computer system or robot; if they cannot answer that question positively, then their job is at risk in part or even in full.
Change in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. The Luddite Movement comprised a group of early 19th Century workmen in England who reacted against change in their workplace by destroying new technology. In their case, the tech revolution comprised the introduction of new mechanised looms and weaving frames of the Industrial Revolution. These new machines fundamentally affected the way that they worked. The real fight of the Luddite Movement was not against the machinery but rather against the failure of employers to reflect these changes in new terms and conditions of employment. In other words, this was not just a matter of new technology but of poor implementation.
It’s difficult (but not entirely impossible) to imagine modern day workers smashing robots or computers. If that does happen, then it can be no more than a short term protest. Workers are likely to turn to more sustainable forms of action, perhaps best represented by the Trade Union movement. After all, unions exist principally to protect the rights and entitlements of their membership.
In recent years, the trade union movement as a whole has been under pressure and has suffered reductions in membership. In the US, for example, 20.3% of the workforce in 2013 were members of unions whereas by 2022 that figure had fallen to 10.1%.
Reductions in membership is not seen by all as a good thing. In the US, according to 2023 surveys, about:
‘Three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (76%) say the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions in recent decades has been very or somewhat bad for the country, and an identical share say it has been bad for working people.
Among Republicans and GOP leaners, 40% say the decline of organized labor has been bad for the country and 45% say it has been bad for working people.’
In the UK, the picture is not dissimilar. Union membership today being half that which existed in the days of Margaret Thatcher in 1973. But the picture for unions isn’t all gloomy. Dan Tomlinson, senior economist of the Resolution Foundation think tank recently said in 2021:
“Many people assume that trade union membership is in terminal decline but in fact, as new statistics published today show, membership has been increasing for four consecutive years.’
It’s a slightly misleading picture. In fact, the growth of membership in the UK has mainly come from those in the public sector. More than 50% of public sector workers are now unionised compared to only 13% for the private sector.
Whilst much of the growth apparently came as a consequence of the Pandemic and a desire for better protection, at what point will workers seek better union representation as a result of their worries because of technology?
Unionisation of the workforce doesn’t seem to be evenly spread across different countries. High density of union involvement in the workforce, such as in the Nordics, is bound to have an impact on the degree of their involvement.
|OECD Country||Trade Union Density %|
Reference ‘Trade Union’. OECD.22 Feb 2021. Retrieved 21/09/23
Unions are already recognising that cooperation and collaboration are likely to be the most successful strategies to protect and defend workers’ rights, rather than confrontation and resistance. To do so effectively will require unions not to stand on the side lines and be victims of change, but rather to play an active part in this new Industrial Revolution.
To do this effectively, the union movement will need to up its game by improving its knowledge of the use of technologies and being able to gain a greater understanding of their impact. It is only through this that they can effectively prevent an adverse impact on issues worker’s rights and condition. This might include increases in short term / zero-hour contracts, greater pressure on low-paid workers, and the identification of bias and discrimination.
The manner in which they communicate change to their threatened workforce is also critical. Communications will need to be clear, simple, and free from technical jargon that is often found elsewhere.
As unions become more knowledgeable and effective in this relatively emotional area, it is probable that they could start to attract more members, including more of those from the private sector. Unions may even be smart enough to use these new technologies not only to retain existing members, but to attract an even greater membership.
They also have a part to play in ensuring that new Regulation protect workers’ rights. Much will depend on how the unions perform and whether they will seek to position themselves as a force for good.
The question then really is whether employers will view the unions as threatening or not, and how leaders and managers of industry will react. Will they welcome this new, informed worker representation with open arms, or will they see unions as a blocker to change?
It will also be interesting to see how political parties might respond with some many people (who are voters) potentially affected. That is a different and equally complex issue for another day.
Worker representation during this period of AI transformation is a difficult and perhaps even controversial area to consider. Both private and public sectors ignore this element at their peril. Effective operation of unions and other forms of employee representation in the workplace will play a major part in the successful implementation of change. The way forward has to be one of collaboration, not confrontation.