UK trade unions, most with roots in the 19th century, have struggled to adjust to a new era.

Globalisation, a growth in the service economy, and an increase in gig economy work have all taken their toll.

By 2017, union membership was half the level it was in the late 1970s and it became apparent that many unions were unsure of how to respond to the waves of technological, social and economic changes that were sweeping the UK. But as technology increasingly changes the world of work, there are signs of a number of converging trends that will make unions more relevant, powerful and visible.

In 2020, a new breed of trade unions will start to turn the tide to re-establish a strong voice for workers: ones that are on the forefront of championing the role of technology and automation in modern workplaces.

Two people stand with a robot, which is helping them

What’s the context?

We are already seeing signs that workers – both white- and blue-collar – are being drawn again into activism and organisation, supported by new digital tools for collective action. In 2018, Google employees around the world walked out against the company’s work with the Pentagon and its treatment of female staff. Uber drivers have been working together to trigger surge prices that increase their pay.

This increase in activism is taking place in a labour market that is increasingly uncertain. Technological change has always affected the world of work, as people’s jobs are reshaped to allow employers to make the most of new innovations.

But this change is now happening at an unprecedented speed. Almost half of workers experienced changes to their working practices as a result of technology between 2012 and 2017. And after a century of low membership numbers, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported this year that union membership in the UK increased by 100,000 between 2017 and 2018.

Tech for good or evil

Of course, change can be both positive and negative. In some places, new technologies have been developed to reduce the stress and strain of working life and give people the flexibility to work in ways that suit them. In Sweden, robots have been applied in dangerous and dirty jobs, such as mining. In the UK, the Fabian Society’s Workers and Technology Commission found that in one distribution centre small automatic vehicles have been used to reduce the distance that workers have to walk each day. And globally, online platforms can provide opportunities for people to find paid work far from their physical location.

In other workplaces, technology is being used to increase efficiency by tracking workers and setting targets that are hard to achieve. This pressurises workers, and can lead to dehumanising and sometimes dangerous work. As a consequence, workers in many sectors are looking for the protection and support that a trade union can bring.

Trade unions have an important role to play in shaping the role that technology plays in the world of work. We are now at a crossroads, facing a choice between a route that augments human capabilities and improves the experience of work, and one that deskills and dehumanises workers. It’s clear there’s an urgent need for effective trade unions that can use the worker voice to shape the decisions of employers.

Turning tides

Unions ready to take on the 21st century are already appearing. Many in Europe are embracing technology that can be shaped for the benefit of workers. In Scandinavia, unions have been a driving force in shaping a mutually supportive relationship between employers, workers and technology. From TCO union in Sweden that anticipates changes to the labour market resulting from digitalisation, to Denmark’s 3F Union, which reached an agreement with Hilfr (a digital platform for domestic cleaners) so that gig workers using the site could secure benefits such as holidays and sick pay.

Here in the UK, workers have been using technology to reclaim the power to shape the future of work. In recent years, new ‘WorkerTech’ companies such as Organise, Earwig and Workerbird have been employing online tools to share information about workplaces, build worker voice and campaign for better conditions.

The UK’s established trade unions are now following their lead, with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) setting out an ambitious campaign to use the productive power of automation to usher in a four-day work week. Other emerging 21st-century unions include Community Union, a smaller merger of unions, formed to specifically address the needs of self-employed workers in the UK. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is another relatively new union that represents low-paid migrant workers from the gig economy, such as cleaners and security guards.

In 2020, this evolution of trade unions will speed up as automation and the changing world of work rises up the agenda across the world. Already, as the United States gears up for the 2020 presidential election, Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have endorsed the broadening of collective and sectoral bargaining powers, and have set out plans to give gig workers the right to unionise.

How will this affect people’s lives?

Trade unions prediction

Technology and automation, combined with the growth of a service economy and precarious work, are transforming the way that society is currently structured around work. It is already directly affecting people in some forms of low-paid work, but people in traditionally safe white-collar jobs, such as accountancy, will also soon start to see changes to their working lives.

These changes will inevitably lead to disruption and job losses, meaning that trade unions have an important role in shaping how far workers who may lose their jobs are supported to reskill and retrain.

Moreover, the new 21st-century trade union can help to shape the way in which technology and automation are applied in our workplaces, championing choices that empower workers, increase the demand for human capabilities and drive productivity.

Jack Orlik is the Programme Manager for Nesta's Open Jobs initiative.