Union strategy, digital and the “battles to be won”

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This article aims to address some of the strategic “battles to be won” for unions — the major digital challenges unions need to overcome so we can build power and win for working people, especially in the rapidly transforming work, economic and cultural landscape.

There is not a lot of clarity about the role of “digital” in strategy. The truth is that the role of digital transformation in Australia’s economy, culture and work is huge.

As union leaders, we cannot underestimate the profound way that new technology will change the social relations of work, not to mention how the economy functions. This is especially the case as new “disruptive” technologies like AI and machine learning have the potential to significantly change knowledge work and further concentrate wealth into the hands of a few.

As I wrote back in 2020, unions don’t need a separate digital strategy; rather, “digital” needs to be embedded and integrated into every part of your union.

The big battles to be won for unions in responding to these challenges, and developing a digital strategy, are lack of familiarity, and incrementalism.

Digital literacy

Low digital literacy is a major challenge for many unions. Improving digital literacy for your union’s leadership, organisers, industrial staff and admin/finance staff is vital to be aware of and respond to the challenges facing members’ jobs, or your union’s operations, culture and finances.

Having low digital literacy causes many problems for unions:

  • “Shiny object” syndrome: investing in new, “cool” technologies or platforms without a clear understanding of the risks or potential costs, or how the new platform will actually benefit the union or members.
  • Fragmented investments in new platforms: purchasing or launching new tools or platforms that don’t easily communicate or integrate, or are overly complex, or duplicate other systems.
  • Investing too slowly in new technology: adopting new tools and platforms too slowly can also put your union at risk, especially as members’ expectations increase, and employers invest in new technology also that can impact members and union organising/industrial activity.

What are some of the things your union can do to combat this?

Raise your union’s digital literacy

There are two areas to focus on when raising your union’s digital literacy.

Firstly, you should ensure there is a consistent “base” level of literacy.

Specifically, this means everyone in your union from elected leadership to organisers and industrial officers, to admin and finance staff should be familiar and effective in using the new “tools of trade” — like Zoom, Teams, Microsoft Office, Sharepoint, etc. Even someone who has years of experience with Microsoft Office will benefit from training, as there are a large number of beneficial new features.

Secondly, your leadership need to dedicate time to understanding the future risks and opportunities that digital transformation poses for:

  • Members: technology can profoundly affect members; such as automation, AI and machine learning, digital surveillance, and data & privacy.
  • The union as an institution: As leaders of the union organisation, elected officials need to understand what impact digital transformation has on a range of areas, like finance, banking, document management, databases and data storage, and asset management.

This requires a decision by your union to provide training for staff, and time for leaders to understand new digital capabilities.

(If your union needs support in establishing a development plan, contact the Australian Trade Union Institute — atui@actu.org.au.)

“Disrupt” yourself

Back in 2016, then-ACTU secretary Dave Oliver challenged the union movement by asking “if unions were invented today, what would we look like?” This question remains as relevant now as it did in 2016.

Unions face significant pressure from employers, governments and non-union organisations (like “Red Unions“) trying to provide services and experiences similar or identical to what unions provide.

Meanwhile, unions are saddled with the burden of significant regulatory requirements under the Fair Work Act in how we operate and govern ourselves. We have obligations and responsibilities to support existing members, which can make it difficult to grow and recruit into newer, emerging sectors.

Some unions have addressed this challenge by “disrupting themselves”. They’ve asked questions like “what if we created an entirely online union?” and then set about trying to do it. (United Workers Union recently provided a detailed report on their Hospo Voice experience, which was presented at the Futures Network in November 2022.)

This kind of disruption is challenging, expensive and not always successful. When new initiatives and efforts are not successful (or not as successful as hoped), this is a learning opportunity. Just because success was not obtained, doesn’t mean the effort was wasted, or that the direction was necessarily wrong.

Unions looking to disrupt themselves should also look beyond the union movement. There are other membership-based organisations, and broader than membership — subscription-based organisations and businesses. These all face similar challenges to recruitment, retention, relevance, value and member-experience that unions face.

How can you start the process of “disrupting yourself”? A potential way to start is to bring together a group of your leadership, industrial staff, organisers, and membership staff and hold a series of “war-gaming” workshops. Divide into teams and ask a similar question that Dave Oliver asked in 2016 — “if we didn’t have the legacy systems and expectations we do now, what would we do?” The question can be posed across a range of your union’s operations — growth, retention, servicing, administration and finances, politics and industrial.

This kind of thought experiment can create a shared sense of urgency amongst your union’s key team and challenge traditional ways of thinking and acting.

The focus of “big moves”

Effective strategy requires focus.

When responding to the vast range of challenges arising from digital disruption, the inevitable risk is spreading your attention and resources to thinly.

This is not just a problem for unions — most businesses and non-profits also face the challenge of trying, and struggling, to do too many things at once. It is very hard to disrupt yourself and upgrade your existing operations while also trying to expand into new and emerging areas.

The challenge especially difficult because because of the fast pace of digital change and the uncertainty surrounding the adoption of new technology.

Take AI and large language learning models used by ChatGPT and members’ jobs — how should unions respond from a policy, industrial and political perspective? Even if the technology becomes mainstream and solves many of the intractable problems of accuracy and reliability, when will industries and employers really begin to use it to change work and (possibly) replace jobs? It’s impossible to say with certainty, and this “fuzziness” is persistent across most of the emerging digital technologies, from self-driving cars to automation and robotics. When looking at how your union could or should respond, it’s easy to end up diffusing your focus across too many issues.

It is just as complicated when considering your union’s own digital operations, communications and organising strategies. There is significant challenges in trying to undertake a digital transformation across too many areas — the lack of focus is a far cry from strategy.

One way to navigate this battle to remain focused is to look at digital initiatives as “big moves” rather than incremental steps.

What “dramatic” changes will result in the largest, most impactful improvements in performance and effectiveness for your union in a particular area?

Having a “big move” — such as a substantial reallocation of resources to deliver a new membership system, or adoption of a new financial accounting system, or major upgrade to your union’s online website — will reduce diffusion.

While big moves are risky, they also galvanise attention and motivation internally — and even if they take longer than expected, they will reinforce future changes, so that the next big move has even more impact.

Moving to a new cloud-based and efficient finance platform for example can take 12+ months, but once it is done, can provide your union with experience and greater resources to implement a new membership system. With both working together, that will reinforce digital transformation for your industrial team in using a new case-management system. And so on.

Another “big move” in digital strategy is pruning or cancelling projects or initiatives. This can be hard, mainly due to the sunk-cost fallacy. Nonetheless, winding up a non-performing activity or project can be just as impactful and vital to effective strategy as launching a new “big move”.

Taking “big moves” is a risky, but important approach to strategy. This is because of what our opponents are doing.

Major employers, and governments, aren’t taking small steps. Employers have access to large capital markets that enable them to make big bets that can fundamentally change how they employ members.

Unions can’t afford to think small — historically we never have when it comes to society-changing work and social reforms. When it comes to strategy and digital transformation, we need to harness that same boldness.

Today’s union leaders need to face challenges that move at a pace unimagined by past leaders. We need to lead our own organisations through implementing strategies that navigate tough external environments, with potentially greater risks, but which also come with greater rewards—and well worth the bolder bets and cultural changes required to survive and, ultimately, grow.

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