PowerShare,  Research,  Technology,  Time & Working Hours,  Trade Unions

Bargaining Tech: Shaping New Technologies to Improve Work, not Devalue It

The Centre for Future Work has published another major paper in its PowerShare project, dealing with the impact of new technology on the quantity and quality of work in Canada – and strategies for ensuring that new technology produces more benefits for workers.

The paper is entitled Bargaining Tech: Strategies for Shaping Technological Change to Benefit Workers, co-authored by Jim Stanford and Kathy Bennett. It provides an overview of the complex, contradictory ways that technological change is affecting jobs in Canada. It also discusses how technology could be better managed and implemented to achieve better, fairer, more inclusive high-tech outcomes.

The report reviews recent debates about whether new technology will lead to mass unemployment (with workers replaced by robots and other smart machines), or will degrade the quality and autonomy of work (exemplified by hyper-intense algorithm-directed jobs in high-tech warehouses or the gig economy).

The paper also reviews efforts by trade unions in Canada to shape and regulate the introduction of new technologies in their workplaces. It compiles a database of 350 collective agreement provisions, through which workers and their unions have tried to influence how technology rolls out.

Major findings include:

      • Fears that tech change will produce mass unemployment are not consistent with statistical evidence from Canada’s recent economic history. Instead, a bigger economic risk is that investments in innovation by Canadian businesses (both in tangible machinery and intangible research) have been too weak – weaker than at any time in the postwar era.
      • While fears of mass unemployment are misplaced, implementation of new technologies can certainly cause disruption and reallocation of work. And technology can also have negative effects on the quality of jobs: including speed-up of work, fragmentation of tasks, new health & safety risks, and the expansion of insecure employment (including gigs) through digital management tools.
      • For all these reasons, whether technology leads to better jobs or worse jobs is indeterminate: depending on whose interests prevail as new tech is unrolled. For that reason, giving workers more say in negotiating how technology unfolds is vital to enhancing the benefits and reducing the costs.
      • Canadian unions have been heavily engaged in negotiating technological change in their workplaces. There is no evidence unions are trying to “stop” technology. Instead, they are trying to shape and manage it: through measures like notice, adjustment supports, access to training and redeployment, limits on surveillance and digital discipline, provisions regarding work from home (which expanded under COVID), and more.
      • The authors’ survey of union bargaining strategies has identified one important shortcoming: the issue of reducing regular working hours has largely fallen off the union bargaining agenda. The authors urge unions to seek ways of revitalizing the campaign for shorter working hours as one key strategy for sharing the productivity gains of new technology, and avoiding unemployment.

The authors conclude with several policy suggestions aimed at both governments and unions, including strengthening collective bargaining systems (especially in the private sector, where just one worker in six is covered by a collective agreement); linking government support for business innovation activity with commitment to negotiate tech change with their workers; and developing ‘early warning systems’ whereby unions can get ahead of tech change before it rolls out. Those measures would help ensure faster, fairer tech change in Canadian workplaces – and a better sharing of its costs and benefits.

Please see the full report, Bargaining Tech: Strategies for Shaping Technological Change to Benefit Workers, by Jim Stanford and Kathy Bennett.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.