How can unions continue to remain relevant in a more dynamic world of labor? Kavi Guppta

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How can unions continue to remain relevant in a more dynamic world of labor?

Kavi Guppta

FORBES, October 12, 2016

Retrieved from: unions-survive-in-the-era-of-automation/#26a88b9b3b22

There is no “one best way” for unions to respond to these challenges, but there is consensus that unions will continue to remain relevant only by anticipating and adapting their organizing and collective bargaining strategies to the continuously changing economy, labor market, demography, work organization, and human resource management.

Successful stories on unions embedding transnational corporations come from their ability to engage themselves in international networks and collective action. For example, thanks to UNI Global Union coordination efforts, the North American management of SecureCorp was convinced to abandon an anti-union strategy and sign an international framework agreement (IFA) at the end of 2008, setting important standards which could be referenced throughout the service and commerce sectors.

Similar cases can be reported from both US and European countries, where international framework agreements between MNCs and trade unions have been signed since 1988 (when Danone concluded the first IFA). Equally relevant for trade unions committed to the promotion of solidarity is establishing alliances with community groups and civil society organizations. Though driven by the initiative of the local mayor, an example can be brought by the so-called “KeepGM” movement: a multi-stakeholder campaign organized in the city of Lansing, Michigan in the 1990s when General Motors was facing serious economic troubles.

The strategy involved the most important local actors, such as the public administration, the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the University of Michigan and GM managers: all committed to demonstrating the value of Lansing and its workforce against closure threats. Subsequently, a new technical education campus was built to expand training programs for GM, necessary infrastructures (e.g. roads, utilities and environmental cleanup) were improved, and UAW embraced an interest-based approach to

negotiations with GM (e.g. leading to fewer job classifications and a two-tier wage structure). The strategy proved to be successful: GM built new plants in the area and invested more than $3 billion.

A proactive communication campaign contributed to engaging local community and sending a clear message to GM headquarters in Detroit. Communication is indeed an important issue for unions willing to create awareness of their organization, encourage non-members to join and demonstrate the benefits of membership. The prevailing views on this topic argues that in face of current transformations (e.g. labor market fragmentation, less stable employment relations), workers’ representatives should embrace social media allowing for immediate communication and dialogue across vast distances and a potentially fast mobilization of a large number of workers.

Unions, indeed, have to be able to interpret and communicate reality, take responsibility and eventually engage in proactive initiatives (e.g. promoting relationships and a participatory culture in companies and localities, even within the framework of increasing age, ethnic and employment contract diversity).

What role can unions play in protecting casual or freelance workers?

There are some reasons why organizing and representing freelancers and independent contractors is not an easy task. On the one hand, competition policy and law may represent a serious constraint for freelance workers to benefit from the right of trade union representation and other freedoms enjoyed by other workers. On the other hand, the self-employed may have contractual relationships with multiple clients at any point of time. This inevitably results in dispersion of contracts and space and a fragmentation of bargaining. By and large, the ambiguities of freelance workers’ occupational identity (whether they are independent or semi-dependent contractors) engender basic organizational dilemmas for both workers and trade unions.

However, there are many examples of unions organizing in areas of casual and insecure employment and substantial gains have been achieved both in terms of providing services to and building new constituencies for this modern workforce. The German trade union, IG Metal, for instance, provides a virtual place named faircrowdwork, where freelance workers (and specifically workers in digital platforms) are allowed to share views and organize themselves. The U.K. Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and

Theatre Union (BECTU) represents both employees and freelance workers in the sector and has signed an agreement with an employers’ organization, the Producers’ Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), which regulates labor relations in the U.K. film-making industry. Finally, in the U.S., the Freelancers Union has recently signed an agreement with Uber. The union is in charge of advising the company on how to create portable benefits for its drivers.

How can unions be more involved within the organizational structure of a company?

Union involvement in the organizational structure of a company is not an easy process. On the one hand, unions can benefit from labor regulations and socio-political institutions at the national or international level. In Europe, for example, the Directives 94/45/EC and 2009/38/EC impose the establishment of a works council and an appropriate information and consultation procedure in transnational undertakings or groups of undertakings employing more than 1000 workers across European countries.

In Germany, co-determination allows works councils, conceived as competent negotiating partners, to work out solutions with employers to improve operations and increase productivity. Furthermore, in Italy the Law 300/1970 allows union channels of workplace representation. This means that only those unions that have signed a collective agreement relevant to the company are consented to establish a workplace representation.

On the other hand, unions can enjoy the increasing diffusion of the so-called “High Performance Work Systems”, which are based on the premise that workers’ voice can play a significant role in enhancing a firm’s competitiveness. Reorganization of production in the direction of these new work systems thus often implies frequent relationships and negotiations with both workers and their representatives. However, beyond external variables, unions willing to engage in the organizational structure of a company have to invest resources in building a culture of mutual trust with management; implying a shared understanding of common goals, good communication and joint efforts to resolve mutual problems.

Integrative bargaining can allow unions to have a role in the organizational structure of a company and achieve win-win agreements delivering mutual gains for both workers and employers. However, in times of changing workplaces and work forces, participatory labor relations require unions to be promoters of, rather than obstacles to, innovation and change. Unions are, therefore, asked to keep up with technological and organizational

transformations, in order to be aware of issues at stakes for both workers and managers. To this aim, unions can find it useful to establish relationships or partnerships with universities, research centers and any technical expert, that can provide workers’ representatives with the necessary knowledge to both engage in fruitful negotiations with employers and successfully interpret and sustain the demands of their represented.

How are unions preparing for large-scale automation in most skilled labor industries?

Firstly, it must be specified that unlike digitization, automation of production is a long-lasting union challenge, that traces back to the second half of the twentieth century. The innovation of current transformations lies in the combination of automated devices with increasing connectivity. There is no empirical research providing a general and homogeneous picture on how unions throughout the world are preparing for large-scale automation.

However, many unions’ attempts to keep up with these changes can be reported from developed countries. In Italy, for instance, the Italian Federation of Metalworkers, FIM-CISL, has recently conducted a study on automation and its impact on production systems and the potential role for unions. Due to the shift from manual tasks to planning and control, and the urgency to assess the complex relationship between humans and machines, the Italian FIM-CISL is promoting professional training as an individual right for workers, which should be included in the national collective agreement of the metalworking sector. Finally, even though there is no “one best way” to reorganize companies in the wake of technological development, it may be contended that future organizations will require more decentralized work processes and highly flexible workplace interventions.

As a consequence, a serious union issue is to prevent flexibility and less hierarchical work structures. As the German model of co-determination demonstrates, workers’ participation in decision-making can provide an effective solution to this issue, allowing automation and digitization to become programs for success for both employers and employees. That is why the workers voice may be expected to become one of the main union claims in face of current transformations.


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