Trade unionists get organised for the digital data age at Glasgow conference

Ben Wray

Trade Unionists from across Scotland debate strategies for organising in new automated and digitised industries

  • Scottish economy set for huge changes in line with global transformation towards automation and the data economy.
  • Trade unionists organsie conference to debate tactics for organising new landscape.
  • State and corporate driven plans to reorganise Edinburgh as ‘data capital of Europe’ raise concerns for workers’ rights.

SCOTTISH trade unionists met in Glasgow today (13 February) to develop strategies to organise workers’ power in the face of state and corporate attempts to reorganise Scotland’s economy for the digitised age.

The Scottish Trade Union Congress’ (STUC) ‘Behind Closed Circuits: Data, digitisation and trade union tactics’ conference met in congress HQ in Glasgow to debate the new challenges confronting the workers’ movement, including city deal strategies that marry state and corporate agencies to retrain workers for prospective jobs, tailored by major corporations for the digitalised economy, the knowledge economy, automation and precarious work.

Cailean Gallagher, STUC campaigns and communications officer, told the conference that trade unions were developing strategies for unionisation around the Edinburgh City Deal, a UK and Scottish Government initiative for job creation worth an estimated £1billion.

He said: “The city deal is a billion pounds investment by UK and Scottish Governments to make Edinburgh the ‘data capital’ of Europe.”

Opinion: We don’t have to fear the AI revolution – we have to democratise it

This is being done through the development of educational programmes by Edinburgh University and their organisation through state agencies like the DWP, working in tandem with private corporations on the understanding they may provide jobs to re-skilled workers.

Gallagher said that a broader economic reorganisation on this basis was characterised by “no union contribution, no guarantee that employers will provide jobs at the end of the process” instead, he said, it is about “meeting company need”.

Though these job creation schemes were currently aiming for the employment of up to 200,000 Scots “there is no suggestion as to why this will provide better work, the assumption is just that they can be included in the economy”.

To counter corporate reorganisation of the knowledge economy, unions would have to strategically intervene in this process, and that right now unions were responding, but that a greater push was required.

The event addressed the many threats and opportunities created by the dawn of new industrial technologies including automation and the new importance of data to the economy, as well as the changing political and geopolitical landscape that these economic transformations were impacting.

Author Aaron Bastani addressing the conference

Aaron Bastani – co-founder of Novara Media and the author of a forthcoming book, ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, on the consequences of automated capitalism for radical politics – told the conference that automation and associated economic processes would have a profound global impact.

The pace of automation mean’t that there was no net increase in manufacturing jobs even as global production increased, and that there was substantial evidence that automation was reducing manufacturing jobs in major industrial centres like China and the US.

The implications, he said, were that trade unionists should pay special attention to organising ‘low skill’  and manual workers particularly in the growing care sector.

The idea of automation simply creating a new economy of emotional labour where unpleasant work was done by robots, “a future UK where everyone is an interior designer or a cupcake baker”, was “nonsense”.

“We know automation doesn’t work like that, it reflects certain interests, certain relationships of power.”

Helen Martin speaking at the STUC event

He said: “The union movement has to assert itself with demands for a three day weekend or a five hour working week, probably both. I’m not under any illusions that the Tories are about to give us this – it’s a class struggle.”

“It will require an irreversible shift in wealth and power to deliver those demands.”

He said that in addition to automation, 21st century capitalism “created the basis for more and more people to live longer and longer without the money to pay for it.

“Its not one model responsible for that, but a global shift; ageing is one inevitable feature of the coming century.”

The scale of social care would mean that “economies simply won’t function if care workers are on strike.”

Podcast: Is Scotland ready for the fourth industrial revolution?

STUC assistant general secretary Helen Martin told around 100 trade unionists that the debate around automation often made unwarranted assumptions that workers could not shape its development.

She said: “Automation is a choice and a business model, in that sense it is not inevitable. It is not the case that the technology exists and therefore it must be deployed. The ways it is implemented are specific choices.”

The business interests behind the implementation of new technologies means “automation is often done poorly. Staff training, is often done poorly.”

Martin noted one PCS union workplace, where workers complained that new technologies to monitor their work were used to discipline workers to arrive on time, but not to record when they worked over their hours.

Kate Bell, head of the Rights International Trade Union Congress (TUC) research group said that their investigation found that there were widespread fears among workers about tracking and monitoring, including tracking devices in cars. 15 per cent said they were concerned that their workplace used facial recognition technology. Workers were also concerned that they would be forced to take on new responsibilities in the era of big data, including the erosion of the distinction between work and private time and increased labour discipline.