With AI on the rise, is it time to join a union?

A crowd of protesters holding union banners in London
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In the industrial revolution, workers struggled to fight for their rights in the face of new technology, culminating in the birth of trade unions. Centuries later, new technologies continue to transform the workplace in an unprecedented manner. Now, with the birth of artificial intelligence (AI), could workers' jobs and rights be at risk again? Is it time for workers to repeat the actions of their predecessors and fight for their rights through trade unions, especially in a world where the rich keep getting richer and unions in the UK have fundamentally changed?

Lower-paid, higher risk

Dr. Adam Wright, head of public policy at the British Academy, believes that unions are one of the key institutions that should play a role in determining how the workplace evolves and the role of technologies in developing them.

"There is evidence from history that suggests good relations between unions and employers can ensure workers have greater influence over working conditions and help mitigate the negative impacts of automation," he says.

"Good employer-union relations have been shown to help ensure technologies like AI are used to ensure the survival of jobs in areas such as manufacturing and enhance working conditions, rather than the opposite."

The British Academy partnered with the Royal Society in 2018 to produce a joint report on AI and work. They found that while AI poses risks to workers in some fields, it can also provide many opportunities. Even though this may be hard to predict, there's evidence AI will produce many new jobs while improving the quality of work and environment for many existing professions.

"Nevertheless, there is also substantial historical evidence that technological changes tend to affect lower-paid and lower-qualified workers more than others. This suggests there are likely to be unequal effects that cause disruption for some people or places more than others," he adds.

This could prove a particular challenge with AI, as it may widen existing inequalities, with lower-income workers disproportionately impacted and unable to benefit from the deployment of AI technologies in the workplace.

In contrast to the industrial revolution, Wright adds that the growing importance of digital creates new demands on the workforce, especially when it comes to education and training. As there will be increasing demand for both higher and broader skill sets, there needs to be greater focus in the current education system to create a broader and more balanced curriculum, and greater opportunities for lifelong learning.

Rage against the machine

When it comes to the implementation of AI and the role trade unions should play, OECD labour market economist Marguerita Lane says they should ensure that there's a fair transition for workers as AI is deployed to allow them to share in the benefits while being protected from potential harms.

"Unions may also wish to get involved from the very infancy of any AI project, so that workers and worker representatives can be aware of and involved in decision-making around the development and deployment of the AI," she says.

The success of social dialogue doesn't only rely on unions, says Lane, but also on both the willingness of employers to engage and a regulatory environment that promotes effective dialogue.

She thinks it's understandable that some workers are worried about AI replacing them in their jobs, as it can perform some non-routine cognitive tasks that older machines and software could not. This means occupations like lab technicians, engineers and actuaries are highly exposed to the new technology.

"These workers are probably more likely to experience transformation of their jobs rather than replacement," she adds, pointing out that these occupations require human skills that AI can't perform.

Lane also thinks that AI is already impacting people's careers and the workforce in general. "There is a funny tendency to think of AI as anything that has not been done yet. Even after an AI breakthrough, people say that that is not real artificial intelligence. On top of this, many workers may already be using AI but are unaware that they are, because the AI is embedded in the software that they use every day," she explains.

When it comes to learning from the past and the industrial revolution, Lane highlights that previous technological waves haven't led to massive unemployment. Instead, she says, they've led to transformations within the labour market and brought challenges policymakers continue to grapple with.

"Workers may need to re-skill or up-skill in order to adapt to new ways of organising tasks and the emergence of new ones. New skills will enable them to face potential job loss and navigate transitions to new jobs. Governments, businesses and unions can play a key role in ensuring that all workers can successfully navigate a changing labour market," she explains.

It pays to organise

Caroline Lloyd, a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, says the only voice that workers have is through trade unions. Without these organisations, she argues, it just becomes about management and employers taking the lead and doing what they think is better.

Lloyd says that in countries such as Germany and Norway there are limitations through legislation and privacy laws on the surveillance of individual workers and the use of their data for managing performance through AI.

"Trade unions and work councils are very important in enforcing that so that managers can't simply use AI to monitor an individual and say 'well where were you at this particular moment?'"

In these countries, there are national committees that look at topics like digitalisation or the future of work that always have representatives from employer's associations and trade unions in equal numbers.

"They are seen as social partners and they have an important role in representing workers and giving a voice to workers and workers' views," she states.

However, here in the UK, unions are often overlooked. Lloyd recognises that it can be difficult for trade unions, as they have very limited rights. She points out that most people don't have a trade union and aren't members, and many unions find it very difficult to be recognised by UK employers.

"Even when they have the union recognition, there's no requirement from employers to consult or negotiate over areas of new technology," she says.

When it comes to introducing new technology in the workplace, Lloyd emphasises the need to share the benefits. She points out that if businesses are introducing certain technologies to cut costs, or improve the quality of a product, how can those benefits be shared with the workforce?

"In terms of policy it's very difficult to do that without saying 'actually what you need are stronger trade unions' because that's the only way they're going to share in those gains is by having a stronger, more organised, trade union movement," she explains.

There is power in a union

Mary Towers thinks you should join a union. As the employment rights policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), she's been leading the organisation's AI project. It's created an AI working group and recently published a legal report and manifesto looking at the use of AI to make decisions about people at work.

In the manifesto, the organisation has set out a series of key values that it asks all employers to adopt when they're considering procuring and implementing new AI technologies to recruit and manage people.

This includes ensuring there's equal access to AI tools, respect for health and wellbeing, and clear work and home boundaries – essentially a right to disconnect.

"We believe strongly that collective bargaining is the perfect vehicle to do this and to enact these values. As well as collective bargaining and union consultation, regulation is also a key factor in terms of securing suitable protections for workers," explains Towers.

She underlines that there are some "absolute red lines" that must be drawn through regulation, such as ensuring there's never any discriminatory processing of data. Workers should always be made aware of when and how AI is operating to make decisions about them at work and this information is accessible and understandable.

Towers also points out that a danger of AI tools is that they'll be implemented in a way that only benefits technology companies and employers, but doesn't benefit workers.

"We're very pro-innovation but very anti-unfairness and so we're very keen to ensure that workers themselves can benefit from innovation in this area and from these types of AI-powered tools themselves," she says.

If there is one policy she could change in government, it would be greater support for trade unions, for collective bargaining and for effective consultation at work to ensure that there's respect for worker voice.

"As to whether or not we get invited to have a seat at the table, what I would say is we're very keen to, any opportunity offered to us we would gladly take up and we're also undertaking best efforts to get a seat at the table wherever possible. We have a growing relationship with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, that's been absolutely fantastic," says Towers.

With the use of AI in the workplace still very much in its infancy, it's difficult to predict whether workers will be able to mobilise to ensure their jobs and wellbeing are protected. Current trends towards AI working alongside humans, rather than replacing them, plus proposed legislation to restrict the use of AI monitoring software, do offer some hope of a brighter AI future.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.