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The changing world of work and the trade union movement’s response

The economy and employment are changing fast, but there are important steps that UK unions can take to be prepared.

Mikey/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The final panel session at the Unions 21 conference in 2016 discussed the union movement’s response to the debate on the future of work, and in the past year I have attended events, read reports, and had endless discussions on the ‘future of work’. Quite rightly, the broader policy discussions are on robotics, artificial intelligence, and the use of technology. But for unions, we think that there are three fundamental questions that we must ask:

• Where will those workers be in terms of industries and occupations?

• How will they be represented at work?

• What changes will we need to make in light of the future of work?

As has already been highlighted in this series, the union movement does not have the strength in numbers that it once had. In Britain today, the majority of those in the workforce are not union members and a majority are not covered by a collective agreement. This doesn’t paint a rosy picture for the union movement.

The union movement does not have an endless pot of resources and the main backbone of our work is delivered by volunteers.

As a movement, as a group of organisations, trade unions are unique in terms of our role within the economy and also in our internal composition, with democracy at its heart. There is a lot of clamour from those working outside and adjacent to the movement calling for unions to change. Yet, experience tells me that it’s not so simple, there never is a silver bullet that is going to turn fortunes or circumstances around. There is talk about the changes unions need to make, but in what context? Unions are working hard to stay relevant, increase our visibility, and in the workplaces where we are established, we continue to play an active role in everyday working life of the UK workforce. We must remember that the union movement does not have an endless pot of resources and the main backbone of our work is delivered by volunteers.

However, change is going to come and unions need to be prepared for it.

To coincide with Unions 21’s most recent conference in March 2017, we prepared a new report, ‘The Changing World of Work’, in collaboration with the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). This publication aims to give unions the context for change; a look at where work of the future may be. This information will then allow unions to have the internal conversations on what change will need to happen. What is clear is that for aside from very few unions, the next ten years will not be business as usual. Certain industries will rise, and others will begin or continue their descent in the labour market.

We think that over the next ten years, three industries that will see a large gain in the workforce will be:

• The retail sector;

• The food and beverages sector;

• And management consultants/head office functions.

We have also identified three industries as ‘ones to watch’ which are construction, social work and information technology.

The trend to move towards an ‘hourglass economy’ – where the middle is hollowed out – looks certain.

What is apparent to us is that the trend to move towards an ‘hourglass economy’ – where the middle of the economy is hollowed out – looks certain. Our forecasts show a rise in both low and high-skilled jobs. This trend also means that occupational change is going to be as important as sectoral changes.

In retail, for example, shop closures do not necessarily mean a reduction of the workforce overall. Sales and customer service occupations will remain the largest group in the industry, but with the introduction of automated checkouts and online retailing, 50,000 workers will be lost in that category. In retail, the growth in jobs will be amongst those in higher-skilled roles such as managers, professional and technical occupations and in elementary roles like warehousing.

Our research shows that the highest percentage increase in jobs looks set to be in the head office and management consultants sector (which includes the provision of advice and assistance to client businesses, as well as overseeing units within companies). This area will see the sharpest change in terms of the hourglass, and will most likely be hit by a two-tier workforce with an emerging ‘core’ group of employees working alongside those on short, medium and long term contracts and freelancers who are hired to carry out business functions.

So, where are the unions?

The levels of penetration within these workforces range from almost negligible to small. This suggests that, given the external factors that can constrain us at the moment – such as current Central Arbitration Committee’s rules on union recognition, as well as social attitudes and experiences – a large resource deployment will be required for unions to build up our capacity on the ground. All unions will be susceptible to changes within their labour market, regardless of whether there will be significant growth or decline in the sectors where we represent workers, so how do we future proof? We suggest the following steps that unions should take:

• Map existing membership with wider labour market trends;

• Undertake their own membership trends work to see which areas are showing growth and decline (this can be sectoral or occupational);

• Examine the rates of collective bargaining coverage with existing employers and compare this with trends;

• Explore employer and employment trends within your sector which will require strategic corporate research.

Using those key four tasks, unions will be able to have realistic questions on how resources should be deployed and what steps they want to take going forward. Work is changing fast, but by conducting this type of analysis and by better understanding the future labour market unions, we can ensure that we retain our influence and effectiveness within the economy.


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