On automation, workers need sound leadership today to thrive in jobs of tomorrow

Toronto – May 18, 2019 – The age of artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and automated decision-making is now upon us, and the time has come to consider how these forces will disrupt Canadian workplaces. As the leader of one of Canada’s largest unions, I know that responding to the uncertainty of technological change will require proactive initiatives today to protect the livelihoods of UFCW members tomorrow.

UFCW Canada is leading the way in measures to address the impact of technological change in a coordinated fashion. We understand that as a union we play a critical role in defining the future of work through the collective agreements we negotiate. Our Local Unions strive to ensure that members are consulted on the introduction of new technologies, and that employers are transparent about the impacts these technologies might have on jobs.

As the nation’s leader in digital education for union members, UFCW Canada also provides online courses and skills training to workers in the retail, hospitality, health care, security, and warehousing sectors, completely free of charge. Our education and training courses enable members to upgrade their personal and professional skills and, in some cases, apply for new jobs. But as automation advances in the workplace, it will be crucial for employers, labour unions, and governments to work together to develop worker-centered training initiatives that focus on equipping employees with the skills they need to be successful in the jobs of the future. A national bargaining strategy rooted in securing an automation fund to protect workers from technological change could also serve as a useful and proactive response to automation.

Another question we should be asking ourselves is “if the future of work is to be technology-driven, what are the expectations for working conditions in these new jobs?” Technology companies like Google, Uber, and Amazon have become notorious for the grueling work environments they promote. From low pay at fulfillment centers, to botched harassment policies and exhausting workdays, employment in the technology industries of today is mostly non-union and as arduous as work in the early days of the industrial revolution. It is worth considering, then, whether the labour movement should unionize a sector that is not only disrupting industries across the globe but also desperately in need of reform itself.

One would hope that technological advancements are used to solve some of society’s most enduring problems – like inequality, poverty, and homelessness. But the evidence is pointing in the other direction. Increasingly, automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI) are exacerbating inequality through computer-generated algorithms that are hardwired with bias. These same systems are used to track work performance, approve credit, and police communities. When investigated more thoroughly, we uncover machines that are pitted against workers, providing evidence for termination or data points to deny a citizen important benefit coverage.

It is therefore critical for government to play a more active role play in regulating AI deployment. Working across industries and between stakeholders, government must put resources behind mitigating the fallout of AI disruption. Ensuring that employers have the right incentives to retrain and keep staff, that workers have the necessary public benefits to stay afloat during job displacement, and that unions have the right labour relations landscape to stay relevant as labour rights diminish in the tech sector, are all important considerations to balance. As well, sector-based committees that could inform government about specific needs would allow for targeted interventions and focused dialogue between stakeholders.

Taking a measured and holistic approach to addressing the challenges of technological change is the best way forward, and both current and coming generations need sound leadership today to secure dignified work into the future.

In solidarity,

Paul R. Meinema
National President