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New Technology and the Future of Work

The world of work is changing rapidly. New technologies are being developed and deployed at a pace that is sometimes abrupt and often alarming. Advanced robotics, automated vehicles, platform applications and artificial intelligence are just a few of the technologies that are transforming our workplaces, our relationships, and our day-to-day lives.

Our workplaces and our work are all susceptible to disruption. This is nothing new. Waves of technological  advances, from mass industrialization in the late 19th century to the adoption of assembly line automation in the late 20th century, have forced a response from workers – including at the bargaining table. Just as in the past, new technology today has the potential to affect the quality and quantity of work in Canada in substantive and meaningful ways.

Researchers estimate that between one third and one half of all tasks performed by workers in Canada’s economy are vulnerable to automation in the next 15 years – a rather alarming statistic.

Additionally, recent studies, including by the World Economic Forum, have found that women hold jobs that are disproportionately more susceptible to task automation then men (including in accommodation and food services, the industry most vulnerable to automation) – creating a notable gender dimension to these changes in the nature of work.

For other workers, the expansion of popular online platform services such as Uber and Netflix in Canada have not only bolstered the rise of Canada’s “gig”-based economy, on the one hand, but have also exposed major loopholes in government regulation, on the other. In many cases, regulators have simply abdicated their responsibility to ensure a level playing field that protects workers’ rights.

The rapid development of new technology has left some workers feeling unqualified for their jobs, resulting from increased skill and education requirements and a lack of training. Some are seeing workloads increase, and the pace of work intensify, as physical workplace boundaries continue to break down – raising new questions about whether workers have a “right to disconnect” from work.

Others are working in already unchallenging positions, only made more mundane through technological  change – jobs that do not require them to use the multitude of skills they’ve acquired over their lifetime. And  many workers across the skills and educational spectrum are facing unstable and insecure work leaving them desperate to take any employment opportunity available regardless of its quality or the stability it offers.

New technologies certainly pose a threat to workers, but they also create opportunities. If workers themselves are able to manage the design and implementation of new technologies, these have the potential to improve our collective standard of living and enhance the connections between people.

Researchers estimate that between one third and one half of all tasks performed by workers in Canada’s economy are vulnerable to automation in the next 15 years.

The current wave of technological change, sometimes dubbed the ‘intelligence revolution’, has the potential to dramatically alter, both positively and negatively, how work is organized and significantly impact levels of physical and psychological stress in the global population.

Our vision to strengthen worker rights The ultimate goal of our work as a union and as workers on the front lines of addressing technological change is to ensure that our workplaces and our society harness the best of what the current wave of technological change has to offer – while minimizing, and even avoiding, the worst. In this way, we can imagine a worker who is safer, more educated, properly compensated, highly skilled, respected for their contribution, and who potentially has more leisure time as a result of increased productivity. We can also imagine a society that is healthier, more equitable, and has easier access to goods and services. Getting there, however, is no easy task. Moving through the current wave of technological change to a stronger, fairer, healthier workplace and society will require a substantive and sustained effort at the bargaining table, in the public policy world and come election time.

Our bargaining priorities

At the bargaining table, we have the opportunity to ensure workers have a meaningful say in the deployment and management of new technologies and tech-driven processes in our workplaces. Through bargaining, we can also establish provisions that preserve the integrity of our collective agreements and safeguard members’ jobs now, and into the future.

To that end, Unifor will:
Negotiate a clear definition of technological change in our collective agreements (that is relevant to the workplace and industry in question), including reference to any change to physical technological equipment, but also to work processes, work organization and work methods.

Establish joint-workplace technology committees, responsible for reviewing technological designs, responding to technological issues as well as implications (such as productivity improvements, privacy and surveillance considerations) of various technological decisions.

Negotiate parameters on the use of technology-driven data collection, and clear limits on how performance data can (or cannot) be used in the context of job evaluations, new job opportunities, training and workplace discipline.

Establish contract provisions that require employers to notify the union of any proposed technological change, prior to its implementation and deployment. Failure to notify should result in a prohibition on implementation of the proposed technological change.

Establish rules that require employers to negotiate with the union on the decision to implement technological change, with allowances for the union to propose alternatives.

Negotiate provisions that prohibit layoff or job displacement resulting from technological change, with opportunities and accommodations for re-training, skills upgrading and relocation for all affected members.

Ensure that union coverage extends to any new hires resulting from the technological change, including work performed by contracting firms.

Where we are unable to fully stop layoffs, negotiate enhanced income maintenance and severance benefits for workers permanently or temporarily laid off due to technological change.

Success stories

Unifor Conference on New Technology and the Future of Work (2018): In the wake of major technological changes deploying across workplaces, including broad-based automation and artificial intelligence, Unifor hosted its first-ever national and cross-sectoral conference on New Technology and the Future of Work in Halifax on August 15, 2018. The conference, attended by hundreds of workplace leaders, marked the beginning of a national strategic effort to discuss the issues and build a political and bargaining agenda.
Greater Toronto Airport Authority (Local 2002): Technological change is a priority issue in ongoing bargaining for members working for the GTAA at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The bargaining committee is working to secure improved technological change language in the face of the upcoming introduction of a new baggage handling system, plus a number of other technological changes expected at the airport.
Skilled Trades at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (multiple Locals): All of our Detroit 3 collective agreements include language addressing the subject of new technology. At FCA, for example, we have bargained a Skilled Trades New Skills Committee/New Technology Committee. Established in the 1980s, this committee continues to evolve as tech change challenges also evolve. The committee serves as a point of contact with the company, and our language requires members to be notified in advance of any upcoming tech changes, so we can meaningfully participate in the development, coordination and tracking of necessary trades training programs.
Rexall Pharmacy (Local 414): In the most recent round of bargaining, members working for Rexall won their first-ever contract language addressing tech change. This new language commits the employer to giving advanced notice of anticipated tech change, and requires a labour/management meeting to discuss minimizing negative impacts on the bargaining unit.

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