Worker voice and empowerment — unions and organising in the digital age

Last week TechforGood Bath collaborated with tech for good groups in London and Bristol as part of a WorkerTech series. We hosted an event which explored how technology can be used to empower workers; how it can improve access to skill development or career advice, can increase bargaining power and enhance worker flexibility.

With the gig economy growing and younger generational understanding of trade unions becoming evermore misconstrued, trade union membership and support has fallen to an all time low. We are facing rising work insecurity, greater displacement and change in the job market and a decline in worker voice and empowerment. Unions are struggling to keep up with the change and workers are calling upon technology to maintain and improve conditions of employment on the right scale.

We started the event with a series of case study lightning talks, detailing tech products serving these needs, before taking the discussion deeper with a panel exploring how technology can enable workers and where it may or may not meet the needs for union organising.

Lightning talks

Founder of BeeBooked, Emily Kent has developed a digital platform that enables people to trade their skills within their local community. This offers individuals who cannot work in a traditional full-time environment to share and earn from their skills. For tutors, bookkeepers, makers, trainers, advisers, designers and more, Beebooked aims to increase local connectivity, reduce isolation, enhance productivity and empower those who want to fit work around their other commitments. BeeBooked is using digital to enhance the human side — supporting their members wherever they can.

Consultant surgeon Andrew Hollowood and Anne Frampton from University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation joined us to discuss his SPEaC (Staff Participation Engagement and Communication) tool, knowns as the “Happy App”. During an unprecedented period of change and increasing financial constraint, it is imperative that NHS staff feel engaged, valued and supported. By 2020 there will be 2 million vacancies within the NHS and The Happy App is an interactive web-based tool using real-time feedback to improve staff experience. How someone feels can affect their team, their ward or service, relationships between teams and, ultimately, their ability to deliver patient care. Andrew has ambitious plans to expand the app’s usage across all UK public Hospitals, with a focus on staff empowerment not profit.

Our final lightening talk was from Ines Lage at Trade Union Congress (TUC): TUC have been working on a long-term digital project to help engage and organise younger workers better and a campaign for apprentices with a greater emphasis on social media engagement. Ines emphasised that work isn’t working for younger people — wages are lower, contracts are insecure, shifts are unpredictable and they will be less prepared for retirement. In response, TUC have developed a petition based website and are creating collective action with face to face interactions key to their success. Trade unions have been working in the same way for many years but young workers are increasingly calling for strike action, TUC is establishing the network of local voices to encourage this change.

Panel discussion

Our panel discussion was led by Jessica Milton, Founder of Protestival and brought together 4 incredible speakers from diverse professional backgrounds, who shared deeper insights into the topic of discussion:

  • Nat Whalley founded Organise, the UK’s workplace campaigning site with the aim of enabling people who spot problems at work to proactively fix them. mission is to give people the tools, network and confidence to make change happen in their workplace.
  • Stu Melvin has 15 years experience of trade union, community, digital and social movement organising. After most recently co-founding new national tenants union ACORN, Stuart is currently organising with the climate movement while exploring how tech will help us build that strongest form of people power: workers power.
  • Tyrone Falls is a deliveroo courier and member of the IWW and IWGB. Tyrone is also active in free education and renters activism.
  • Wendy Liu is a software developer and former startup founder who left the tech industry to study inequality at the London School of Economics. Wendy now writes about the political economy of Silicon Valley and why tech workers need to unionise. She is an editor for New Socialist and Notes From Below.

The discussion started by considering how technology is currently being used for worker empowerment. Different tools are being used for different means but ultimately technology is being used in a shallow way and whatsapp will only take us so far in raising worker voice. Technology needs to be used to change the ideology landscape, to shift the imbalance of power from data hungry corporations to data empowered workers. Young workers need to feel like they can lead, can contribute and can drive change within their companies. Wendy explained there is space for tech in organising workers, it has the ability to transcend boundaries connecting workers in global corporations around issues they care about and empowering them to make a stand. Organise have created a vehicle to enable workers to connect, empowering them to take steps towards change, but more action is required and unions need to show their support.

As the nature of our work is changing with automation and broader economy transformations, workers need to focus on the importance of relationships and connectivity. As acknowledge in The Automation Charade article ‘Automated processes are often far less impressive than the puffery and propaganda surrounding them imply — and sometimes they are nowhere to be seen’. Cooperatives are growing almost under the radar and union structures based on the traditional company no longer work.

Legislation is lacking, and whilst the Government aren’t taking charge of our economy and protecting our workers trade unions need to become tech enabled, supporting modern workers and raising their worker voice.

TechforGoodBath have regular free events to connect and drive collaboration and learning amongst civic society and the technology & creative sectors here in Bath and surrounding areas. Join our Meetup group or Facebook page to sign up to future events and subscribe to our monthly newsletter here for news.