Digital innovation for unions after coronavirus

Back in July last year, I wrote about unions and digital innovation. In this newsletter, I want to revisit that issue in light of the coronavirus crisis.

As Australia (and the world) moves from health crisis to economic shock and recession, how should unions innovate? Is it the same as pre-crisis?

P.S. If you haven’t read my Introduction to Online Campaigning for unions it’s available for free download here.

In the corporate sector, “digital innovation” is an increasingly massive issue. Technology is not just disrupting traditional business models, but it is allowing the rapid concentration of power, influence, money and resources into ever fewer hands.

New disruptive technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing (the cloud), and the Internet of Things (IoT) have big impacts on national economies, not to mention global supply chains, culture, workers rights (of course) and more. And the pace of change is accelerating (and not for the better).

So what should union leaders know about all of this?

I certainly think that our movement does not have the luxury to do nothing, and we don’t have the time to simply try to muddle along, or hope that our core business is “disruption-proof” (it’s not).

I’ve also observed some skepticism about how much impact digital transformation and disruption will have on our movement, as well as skepticism about the nature and speed of the potential threats. The Centre for Future Work for example plays down the risks overall of technology to work, arguing that regardless of the technology, “work” will still be required (albeit more service work, including maintenance of the “robots”).

What we’ve seen during the coronavirus crisis is digital and technological disruption has been accelerated – and not necessarily in the areas that was commonly expected.

Scam “tech unicorns” like Uber, We Work, Zoox and driverless cars, and similar companies – unprofitable, venture-capital backed wanna-be monopolists have discovered that they can’t operate in the real economy when real consumer demand dries up and the exploited workforce they rely on can’t (or won’t) work.

Meanwhile, knowledge work continues to be a growth area for digital disruption – consulting firms, law firms, and media outlets have doubled-down on artificial intelligence platforms for data analysis and content creation.

And the real corporate winners of coronavirus are the tech companies that specialise in surveillance. The issue of the surveillance of workers by employers (and corporations generally) is a massive issue about which I’ve written here.

The possible (likely) future of long-term mass-unemployment in Australian (and almost everywhere else), combined with wage-stagnation is another massive “disruption” for union leaders to grapple with.

In any case, “innovation” of the type commonly written about in the pages of the AFR or Business Insider has not fared well during coronavirus. The tech-enabled gig economy, always exploitative and a fringe part of the economy, has fallen away to expose the fact that the vast bulk of the “real” gig economy was highly casualised industries like retail, hospitality, higher ed and social & disability care sectors.

No union leader should be looking at the tech “unicorns” for templates or models for union innovation.

The risks for union leaders seeking to evolve and advance their union is the same for any major transformation: without the skills, financial support, investment model, staff, patience, and culture to succeed, innovation and transformation is likely to be unsuccessful.

But despite this, I believe that post-COVID, it is more important than ever for union leaders to be aware of, and more-or-less understand the risks and opportunities posed by new technology and digital transformation.

This is for two reasons:

Firstly, because of the potential disruption for members and their jobs. There’s no doubt that technology has massively changed a whole host of industries: it’s not just digital tech, but innovation generally tends towards “productivity” improvements — that is, labour-saving.

This is most evident in the telecommunications space, where fewer and fewer technicians are now needed to install and maintain telephone/internet services. The finance sector is also seeing the impact of technology-driven disruption; bank tellers are more or less replaced with apps, ATMs and AI-powered chat bots.

Each industry has its own dynamic of course, and the coronavirus crisis has shown that the service sectors aren’t immune to labour-saving and labour-storing technological advances or new tools to control workers. Witness the rise of app-based rostering for NDIS and aged care nurses. While the actual “work” remains, the social relationships between employer and employee are being changed by technology, handing ever more power to employers.

Needless to say, in my view, union leaders must be needs to be aware and vested in the digital and technological innovations in their industries and sectors. A greater understanding allows the leadership to then distinguish the “noise” (of trends and buzzwords) from the signal.

Secondly, because of the risks and benefits for the union as an organisation/institution.

Unions cannot sit on the digital transformation sidelines. Most unions still use fairly out-dated, legacy systems for crucial things like membership databases, financial, HR and payroll systems. Increasingly, these are a millstone for unions, when it comes to costs and opportunity-costs.

These legacy systems more often than not are an impediment to organising, growth and building power for working people.

Obviously, unions operate in a highly regulated environment, especially when it comes to finances and membership. Change is hard.

And there are a lot of shonks out there selling rubbish tech-products who see unions as an easy target. There’s no single technology that will deliver “innovation”, and the best tools will differ for a given union; without a better understanding of what’s possible, it is easy for to be conned by a company or consultant with a product to sell.

As leaders of the union movement, we need to lead this change, rather than be led. Something fundamentally important is happening, and for unions, what is happening may well be existential.

It will be difficult to develop a strategy for your union if your leadership team are only tangentially aware of what is possible or what the risks are. And digital literacy remains a challenge at almost every level of the union movement – from organisers, leads, industrial officers, admin staff up to leadership.

Back in 2016, Dave Oliver kick-started a conversation about innovation in the union movement. It was (and is) an important conversation: some unions took up the challenge (e.g. United Voice and NUW merging to create the UWU), but parliamentary elections and legislative threats, somewhat drained our enthusiasm to actually go through the hard slog of innovation.

Digital and technological transformation is about sweeping change. It changes everything about how industries operate, how services are delivered to members. It necessarily should force union leaders to rethink how our unions organise, how we communicate, how we manage our staff, our finances, how we store and access our information systems, as well as everything about the nature of our relationships with members.

Of course, there are unions who are experimenting with different tools or systems, trialling AI or cloud-based systems. And its good that this is happening (we really should share what is the results of using these tools better though – which is what the ACTU’s new Futures Network is doing.)

But that’s not enough.

It’s not about shiny new tech toys. Tinkering is insufficient.

We should be talking and thinking about this all the time, with our leadership teams, with our management committees, with our staff and organisers. We need to mobilise not just individual unions but the entire movement.

The threats, and the opportunities, are existential.

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