Look out across many manufacturing floors, and you would have a difficult time spotting a human. Across industries, technology is having a profound impact on the workforce. Employers view technology as a way to keep labor costs down while improving efficiency and productivity. Unions view technology as a threat to job security and higher wages. It’s a showdown that has been in the making for the past several decades, and one you should be prepared for whether your company is currently unionized or you’re actively working to union-proof your business.
Non-Employee Unionization! What Next?
In December 2015, Seattle passed an ordinance that gave Uber, Lyft and others the right to unionize. Teamsters Local 117 was at the heart of the effort. Uber protested in court, but in August 2016, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. In March 2017, a judge upheld the dismissal, and the Teamsters are ready to begin an organizing drive in April 2017. Uber has been vigorously communicating to its contracted drivers the impact of joining unions, including less driver flexibility and higher rates leading to fewer rides and lower income.
The Uber case has all the elements of modern day issues surrounding unions and the transforming workplace. First, Uber drivers are not employees. They are contracted workers, yet are union targets. Second, technology enables the work and eliminates a layer of employees who would have served as the link between drivers and customers. Third, the workplace is not a traditional fixed place. The companies, some drivers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have filed federal lawsuits requesting the law be overturned. This case is viewed as a benchmark for establishing new collective bargaining rights in a technology-based economy that is changing the work model for blue and white collar jobs.
Afraid of Irrelevance
Unions are afraid that technology will make them irrelevant. Driverless vehicles could replace many truck drivers. Automated cargo movers replaced dock workers. Online retail activity is forcing closure of big box department stores. Fast food workers are being replaced with automated ordering and food delivery systems. McKinsey & Company projects that 45 percent of current paid job activities will be automated eventually. Unions are responding by developing new strategies that include targeting service workers and contracted workers in a desperate attempt to increase membership.
Understanding the union view of the changing work model is critical to union-proofing your business or to being prepared to respond to union complaints, should you replace employees with technology. Unions argue that technology is driving wages down and creating job insecurity for millions of workers. They are looking at the connection between automation and the transformation of the workforce to more contracted workers who historically have not unionized.
Staying Ahead of Union Organizing
The Service Employees International Union president told a technology design session that traditional unionizing strategies and collective bargaining power don’t work anymore in the age of technology. He added that unions need new collective tools that fit the new economy. They include using apps to unite workers, promoting civic engagement to achieve results like legally required higher minimum wages and sharing employment information.
As an employer, you must adapt to the connectivity defining today’s marketplace. Your employees aren’t reading posters on the walls. They’re online or using mobile apps to connect with workers in other companies, community members and union representatives. Becoming an employer of choice has never been more dependent on the quality and transparency of employee communication systems that keep workers informed of the advantages and benefits they get by working for your company and the reasons unionization can be damaging to a positive work environment.
An effective communication system also helps your leaders maintain the morale of remaining staff when layoffs occur due to automation. The best leaders are fully engaged in their roles, know how to engage and motivate multigenerational employees, inspire people during periods of uncertainty and develop company advocates for union avoidance. In the unstoppable age of technology, messaging and connectivity are two powerful tools for keeping unions away.