I had the privilege of attending the Uni Global 6th World Conference in Philadelphia, alongside delegates from over 150 countries.
The theme of the conference was Rising Together. Motions included Building union power for all, which examined the importance of international collaboration on issues that impact workers everywhere, and how achieving this through organising and building union power at multinational corporations is key to expanding collective bargaining.
A key motion that will be of interest to our members was Rising together for decent work in the digital age. Delegates heard how the nature of work and the quality of jobs are changing as a result of greater adoption of digitalisation in the workplace, and how that pace has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Algorithmic management tools and new surveillance technologies in the workplace to track the pace and the quality of work are being used to discipline workers and monitor output. Companies like Royal Mail and Amazon have adopted the use of cameras that track workers’ movements and interactions including keystroke monitoring programs known as Bossware, all designed to monitor, record and store information about workers.
While there could be positive outcomes from the adoption of new technologies with worker input such as the removal of repetitive tasks, there are many risks to be managed. The negative outcomes can include excessive data collection and the use of data to discriminate against employees on the grounds of race, sex, age or disability. These technologies can also foster mistrust between employees and their employer, and leave workers feeling that they are under constant surveillance.
I was proud to join our comrades in SAG-AFTRA at a rally where Philippa Childs, Head of Bectu, gave a rousing solidarity speech, outlining the direct link between the Hollywood disputes and Bectu members’ jobs and working conditions in the UK. The knock-on effect of the US industrial action highlights that union issues can and do cross borders, and demonstrates the need to work together to support each other as multinationals attempt to erode workers’ rights and their ability to earn a decent living.
A major area of concern around digitalisation is generative AI and the impact it could have on the creative industries. This has led to some organisations bringing legal challenges against OpenAI for infringement of intellectual property rights. A major element of the SAG-AFTRA dispute is the use of AI and ensuring workers retain control over likenesses and voices so they are not replaced by AI. The impact of the dispute is truly global, with many Bectu members facing an abrupt loss of earnings and ongoing uncertainty.
Bernie Sanders was the keynote speaker at the event and emphasised the importance of international solidarity. He spoke about income disparity, concentration of ownership and how these threaten democracy. Bernie reminded us how wages in real terms have decreased despite increased productivity and how we as unions should be mindful of the impact of AI on working people.
A recurring theme throughout the conference was the issue of dignity at work and how AI could be a force for good if managed by workers for workers. We must ensure that workers have a say on the adoption of new technologies and have a right to disconnect from work – something Prospect has been campaigning on for some time.
The importance and strategic role of trade unions has become clearer than ever to me after attending this conference. We need to challenge ourselves as unions to use our position to influence good corporate governance, and support and advocate for government policies that support decent working conditions that will reduce inequality.
Let us continue to educate and inform workers who are not yet members of a union of why we exist and what we do. Our strength comes from our numbers. Imagine what we could achieve if we truly stood together and chose to rise together. Solidarity.