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  • Writer's pictureChristina J. Colclough

Your Digital Union

Trade Unions are facing a number of challenges caused by the increasing digitalisation of work and workers. Some of these challenges are political and strategic in nature. Others relate to unions' internal operations. In this article written for the Danish Insurance Union, Forsikringsforbundet and available in Danish and English, I lay out what the future digitalised union looks like, what it does and why.

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Forsikring - blad 3-2021 - Christina Colclough artikel
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Original version in English

Your Digital Union

At an event held by the International Labour Organisation just before the pandemic, a prominent speaker said that trade unions have no future. Their heyday has passed, and workers no longer will need, nor want, to collectivise, he claimed. Let’s take the scepticism, jump 10 years into the future and ask: what is the future of trade unions? What services will they need to offer? And what will members want and need?

Today's digital challenges

The Why Not Lab firmly believes that trade unions have an important role to play in protecting workers' rights in the digital age. However, there is a sense of urgency around us - unions must very soon commit to reshaping digitalisation, to negotiating for much stronger workers’ rights in relation to the massive influx of digital technologies into workplaces, and to pushing for a seat at the table in the governance of these technologies. Unions now, as in the future, will need to mitigate the harms that these technologies can and are inflicting on workers.

Workers across the world are reporting how they are being negatively impacted by workplace digital tools systems. These are:

  • Work intensification: working time increases and increases in the pace of work

  • Discrimination/bias in who gets an opportunity, who is denied

--> risk of moving towards a narrow, exclusive labour market

  • Mental health & physical health pressures

  • Deskilling and job loss - precarious work forms on the rise

  • Lower wages, economic insecurity, less mobility

  • Suppression of organising

  • Loss of autonomy and dignity

  • Loss of privacy

Classic challenges

A closer look at these harms shows that they are really core union issues. The difference is the means through which these harms are inflicted. Rather than coming directly from incompetent or otherwise bad employers, they are coming from employers who in the name of efficiency and/or productivity are deploying new digital technologies.

Many workplace technologies and tools such as productivity and efficiency monitoring systems, automated scheduling, automated hiring or firing tools, worker location tracking, sensors, can be grouped under the heading of Algorithmic Management. Furthermore, and to make things more complicated, many of these digital technologies are owned by, or developed by, 3rd party companies typically from other countries then where they are deployed. Oftentimes they are not adapted to the culture, norms, and traditions of the deploying country, nor its labour market. And certainly not to collective bargaining traditions.

To safeguard workers’ rights trade unions must hold management accountable for the systems they introduce in the workplace. This is a pertinent issue. In much of our work it has become evident that the complexities of these technologies has caused what we call 'managerial fuzz'. Who amongst management is actually in control of these digital tools, how they operate, and who has the duty to remedy harms? Who understand their inner workings and who is responsible for governing them? In this regard, unions today, as in the future, must ask management some important questions, including:

  1. Who holds the data about the workers and does the analyses? Under which jurisdiction are they? How are workers’ data rights being respected?

  2. Can the vendor/developer repurpose the data and sell it?

  3. Does the deploying company (the employer) have the right to change the algorithm and to mitigate the harms? If not, what should be tje take down procedure?

  4. What are the workers’ rights to agree to, block or amend the data extraction, the algorithmic inferences and define the purposes/limitations to the use of the tool and its insights?

Specifically, trade unions and shop stewards need to build a comprehensive set of digital competences in order to successfully assess and negotiate on these issues.

Let's now skip ten years into the future and look at how a union in 2030 handles these matters.

Being digital - strategy and policies

Here in 2030, there is still a great focus on working time, the mental and physical work environment, competencies and health and safety. But our union is also working to protect and develop workers' digital rights – for example, the right to rest, collective data rights, the right to be free from algorithmic manipulation, privacy rights and the right to control their digital identities.

The union has developed a set of demands to ensure these rights, which they actively and successfully include in collective agreements and legislation. These demands oblige companies to be transparent about the digital systems they use, and for what purposes. Thanks to the trade union movement, employers are now obliged by law to negotiate with shop stewards on the use of and control over digital systems. Our trade union 2030 has a firm seat at the digital negotiating table.

In order to ensure that trade unions can be as strong as possible in digital negotiations they train a specialised cohort of shop stewards: 'DigiReps'. The DigiReps continuously oversee the use of digital technologies in workplaces. They hold management responsible for how technologies are used, for what purposes and safeguard workers’ rights by demanding what digital tools can and cannot be used for. The DigiReps are the key resources for negotiating digital clauses into collective agreements.

The possibility to be trained as a DigiRep has crucially captured the interest of young trade union members. The union is growing!

Digital tools

In 2030, unions are successfully tapping into the potentials of digital technologies and using responsible and privacy-preserving tools to gather information and insights. By getting data through responsible ways and analysing it, unions are now issuing campaigns, information and stories of the realities of the digitalised world of work. Politicians and the public, employers and markets are hearing new versions of reality: that of the workers: From digitalised messages, to electronic billboards, to tailormade news stories, and on to successful collective bargaining by the DigiReps, unions are breaking the ‘monopolisation of truth’ driven previously and exclusively by the companies who held the data. Their glossy, one-sided version of reality has been shattered.

Solo self-employed are included

The union is fully using its digital competencies to reach out to, and be relevant for, the growing number of contract and solo-self employed workers. By offering them a digital hub, tailor-made information and the means through which to participate in union democracy remotely, these workers feel heard and seen. They are no longer “ghost workers” hidden from the public eye and policies. Their working time, working conditions and their rights are widely known and collectively negotiated. Social policies have been changed to ensure no worker falls between the cracks with no rights and protection.

The Physical Union

More and more work takes place remotely, which can be from home, or from cooperative work spaces. To meet this reality, unions have created secure online meeting spaces, which are available to all members. But they have also built physical workspaces. Scattered across the country these secure workspaces offer workers the opportunity to meet, to work, to hold meetings and arrange events. Unions 2030 are far from purely digital - they become the modern-day local town hall breaking isolation by offering social spaces.

Topically, unions have campaigned on the Right to Rest - a direct response to the harms of the ‘always on’ digital reality of previous times. A much more balanced relation between work life and private life has been re-established.

Digital Union

To do all of the above, our union 2030 has undergone significant internal changes. All staff have been trained so they are aware of the potentials and pitfalls of digital technologies. Unions have mainstreamed across the organisation how to critically tap into the use of responsible digital technologies in organising, campaigning, member services and policy advocacy. The union movement has moved away from using digital systems in the cloud owned by large multinational corporations and instead have built their own systems around the decentralised web. Here unions nationally and internationally have built an ecosystem of protected servers that enable safe file storage, email systems and communication tools that ensure no private company has access to their information. This in turn has curbed union busting by removing corporate knowledge of union actions and strategies.

Unions 2030 have jointly developed digital tools and systems that have their members’ privacy at heart. By avoiding third party data snooping and protecting members’ rights, the unions are showing the world that the convenience of digital technologies doesn’t have to come with a price: your integrity and privacy.

Data analysts who specialise in analysing workers’ data in combination with other sustainably sourced data are widely available to the union movement. By having these competencies at hand, unions can turn data into information and from there into new knowledge. This knowledge is used by the DigiReps, the union leaders and organisers to swiftly and persuasively campaign for the workers’ benefit.

Membership data is stored securely in tailormade Membership Relationship Management Systems. These systems are used to ensure that members get the information they want and need. The unions 2030 have strict data governance policies in place with regards to what data is stored, for how long, who has access to it, and how it is secured. By building these democratically governed worker data collectives, unions can truly benefit from the collective insights in the shared data from members. Unions have established secure systems for sharing these insights with one another without sharing the individual datasets themselves.

A relevant union

Members can instantaneously seek answers to questions about their rights and collective agreements through the union 2030 service bot that also can connect them swiftly to expert staff or a DigiRep. The union is present and accessible. Safe whistleblowing systems are in place that offer real time channels for members to report on workplace issues.

In 2030, there will be fewer unions than today. Unions have merged so they can avoid individual and costly transformations and can scale their operations and policies. The systems mentioned above ensure that members receive sector and occupation specific services and information. The union is still tailormade to the members' individual needs.

The future of trade unions

The trade union movement certainly has a future. But it will take a lot of changes - both in terms of what the trade union movement does - and how they do it.

Workers in 2030 have broken the illusion their peers were sold that digital technologies are emancipatory and equal for all. As the harms of former digital technologies were felt, and as the promise of freedom and flexibility of individualised contracts were never met, workers' resistance has grown. They have felt and realised that changes require cooperation and collectivisation. Our unions 2030 are operationally and strategically geared to meet this resistance.

The labour market of 2030 is no longer naive about digital technologies. Rather it regulates and frames them to put people and planet before corporate profit. Bridging the present day to our 2030 scenario will, though, require battles and changes that innovative and courageous union leaders must dare take. If not, the statement that unions have no future that we opened this article with, will most likely become true.

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