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Unions 21
| Blog post

Can unions adopt the best of AI to fight the worst of AI?

By Nick Scott, Senior Associate, Unions 21 | 4 min

We stand at the dawn of an age that will be defined by artificial intelligence. 

Like the industrial age innovations of electricity or the steam engine, AI is a general-purpose technology. Browsing the dozens of articles published by just one newspaper, The Guardian, over the past month shows that it promises to change society in many ways that are predictable, and many that are not.

I believe that in this AI era, strong unions will be needed more than ever: to ensure that AI serves humanity and not the other way around. 

As we move into this AI age, we will need unions who have the knowledge and belief to negotiate with employers, governments and technology giants to ensure a just transition on AI.

It’s a role that unions are born to play. Trade unions were formed to respond to the rise of machines and their impact on jobs, people and communities in the industrial era. Fast forward to the 2020s and we are already seeing unions and trade union centres taking steps to understand the impact and mitigate the impact of AI in workplaces (see most notably the WGA strike in the US, where the victory in terms of limiting AI was seen as key).

But AI’s challenge for unions is not just about what they do – it is also how they do it. 

During the industrial revolution, unions had operating models that harnessed the same technological advances that fed inequalities they were fighting against. They used industrial era transportation and communication technologies to organise and fight industrial era worker exploitation.

So far, unions have not sought to repeat this trick with AI. In preparing this blog I tried to find examples of unions who have used AI internally to build their strength. In the UK, the National Education Union has used AI to strengthen its member engagement and increase vote turnout. Other than that, I found little evidence of unions incorporating AI into their organisational culture, infrastructure, skills and processes.

Yet there are huge opportunities for those unions who do harness AI to build their inner strength. 

Alex White outlined a number of ways unions could harness generative AI in their communications, operations or member servicing. There are many obvious and less obvious opportunities: connecting with new members through reskilling programmes; improving data usage and availability in negotiations; including distributed workers in new and more intelligent ways. Grasping each of these opportunities will require unions to understand and mitigate the many risks of AI: on bias, privacy, security, exclusion and more.

Importantly, not using AI could leave unions at a disadvantage and risk falling further behind. Union members will come to expect AI-driven personalisation in communications and engagement, whether the union offers it or not. The employers unions are negotiating with will harness AI in their negotiations, whether the union does or not. The workers unions support will be trained on AI, whether the union is involved or not. 

Unions21 project on unions and AI

So, a key question for union strength in the future is this: will unions who were once adept at using the technology of the Industrial era to grow their influence and impact be able to do the same in the AI age?

I think it will be a challenge, but it is one worth taking on. Because, to be effective for workers, unions – and their staff – need to keep pace with society and technology as it evolves. If unions are to combat algorithmic bias, worker surveillance or the digital divide and be a voice for ethical technology use they will need to deeply understand how AI affects their current ways of working and how they can make use of AI themselves in a responsible and transformative way.

And one of the best ways to understand AI is to use AI… to get up close and personal with it. To play with it. That is why Unions 21 is launching a new project focusing on AI’s impact, opportunities and challenges for unions as organisations – and for their staff and representatives. The project includes research on attitudes, use cases and understanding of AI within unions; plus training and information for unions who want to take their next steps in adopting responsible AI.

We will be releasing videos and information on our research, training workshops and an online community of AI users in unions in the coming weeks.

If you are interested in AI and unions, sign up to our list!

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