A report from GMB Young London – Unions Can Lead the Discussion on Automation

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A report from GMB Young London – Unions Can Lead the Discussion on Automation, Equality Regional newsletter (summer edition) by Tony Scattergood, GMB Young London

Trade Union history is rooted in the fight for equality and rights – especially workers’. The past is an uneasy reminder of the unimaginable levels of unfairness the workforce was exposed to; be it dangerous working conditions, unscrupulous bosses, slave-like wages and virtually no autonomy.

Everywhere from armies to farms via dungeon-like mills, factories and hellish mines, workers have been, and in some places, continue to be, subjected to hideous conditions. The formations of unions catalysed the fight against exploitation and depravity.

Safeguarding the workforce

We may reminisce proudly, remembering what unions have achieved in our quest for equality and rights, but must now look to the future and safeguard the workforce of tomorrow against the spectres of past injustice. There is an inescapable inevitability approaching us, the age of automation.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC) estimates that up to 30% of existing jobs will be susceptible to automation and artificial intelligence (AI) within the next 15 years – a frighteningly short amount of time. The sectors expected to be hit the hardest are areas such as transport and logistics, manufacturing and wholesale retail; apparently low skilled jobs mostly paying out mediocre wages. White-collar professionals mustn’t rest too easy; advances in A.I. medical diagnostics, surgical robots, legal researching machines and many more herald relegation in a gamut of jobs.

While automation will almost certainly boost productivity, it could also widen income inequality further if not managed correctly. A larger portion of wealth would go to those with the skills needed to

thrive in an ever more digital economy, leaving those lacking such knowledge and needing re-training behind. There is very little talk, if any at all, from Government on managing the transition to a new kind of workforce – and new approach to the fabled work-life balance. It is far from inconceivable that as job sectors fall to robots a three-day working week and Universal Income becomes the norm – or we can try a low wage, low skill gig economy with insufficient work to go around and massive poverty. These are the two extremes, and I know which I’d sooner be moving towards. These notions show automation and its potential fallout doesn’t receive the attention it requires.

Addressing impact now

This is where unions come in, bringing a much-needed conversation into the mainstream - and GMB can be the leading voice. We must begin addressing the impact automation will have on society and the implications of the mass unemployment that could ensue. It’s imperative that we highlight this issue as often as we can and automation becomes a regular topic of conversation when we discuss issues our members face, or may expect to. It is a mighty task but one worth pursuing until it has been accomplished. The sheer weight of the situation that could unfold demands our wholesale efforts and attention.

We have protected workers and improved their rights for generations. Now, what a working life means is changing around us. It behoves unions to bring our experience to bear on this metamorphosis.