Changing the Future, Now

Technology can liberate workers — or it can be used to control them. Which path it follows will depend on the labour movement.

Illustration by David Biskup

For as long as I’ve been active in the labour movement, I can remember debates about technology and automation and their impact on the world of work. Back in the 1970s the big idea was that we would all be working far less by now, as new technologies freed us up to do other things with our time.

The notion that this would be the result of technological change, that the benefits of labour would be equally distributed, particularly in relation to working time, shouldn’t be seen as science fiction. The idea wasn’t that we would all be driving hover-cars or living underwater. A shorter working week is achievable and practical — to some extent it was even considered inevitable. But the experience for workers today, in a more pressurised labour market than I can ever remember, has made it feel like a utopian dream for many.

As we see with the renewed interest in the campaign for a four-day week, questions about the future of work are rising up the agenda — and with good reason. Full-time workers in the UK work longer hours than any other country in Europe. We are among the worst in terms of statutory and public holiday entitlements. And, on top of that, with the impending increase in the state pension age to 68, our working lives will be as long as in any other European country. It’s not just the time we spend at work, either, but the intensity of our working lives that matters too.

While this issue has not yet cut through in political debate, workers across the board are coming under pressure to work harder and faster for less. This is true in the two largest employers for CWU members. In BT, telecoms engineers have become a mobile workforce for Openreach and are now required to spend up to two hours travelling every day to and from their first and last jobs before they get paid. This is despite the fact that these hours count as work under the Working Time Directive and staff with a standard 37.5-hour week are regularly working within a whisker of the 48-hour legal maximum.

The situation is not just unfair and dangerous, it’s discriminatory. By introducing these contracts without agreement, BT has created a two-tier workforce. Increasingly, we are seeing staff on these new mobile contracts deliberately allocated further-flung jobs to maximise the unpaid hours the company can get out of them. This has become a huge issue and the union has launched a campaign — ‘Our Hours’ — to end a practice that is destroying members’ work/life balance. This is just one example of how technology, by facilitating ‘flexible’ ways of working, is coming at a cost.

It’s a similar story in Royal Mail. Ever greater automation and computer-driven resourcing models mean that workload, hours, and intensity have become major concerns for postal workers and the union. In particular, postmen and women delivering the mail have seen delivery routes getting longer, the type of mail they’re carrying getting heavier, and the time they have at each door getting shorter. While delivering a parcel to a neighbour is supposed to be an option when someone isn’t in, postal workers often aren’t given time by managers to do it during their round.

Today, the pattern of targeting frontline workers to work harder and faster continues at pace. In May, Royal Mail announced a new five-year strategy with annual productivity targets for workers that will mean some 20,000 job losses and an even greater workload for those that remain. Alongside these reforms, it wants to roll out new technology for monitoring, capturing data on, and managing its staff during delivery, not only increasing workload but seeking to circumvent the union and local reps’ ability to negotiate. So just as with the ‘Our Hours’ campaign in BT, this is now a key issue for the CWU in Royal Mail.

Our experience in these companies tells us a number of important things about the future of work. Firstly, that the questions posed by technology are not simply about how big a number we can put on job losses. Already, technological advances are being used by employers to drive down labour costs and intensify working lives. Secondly, that we shouldn’t simply regard a fourth industrial revolution as some ‘big bang’ event in the future. Automation and surveillance is happening and intensifying work right now. And thirdly, that there is an increasingly prevalent work-’til-you-drop culture being created, even in secure jobs in unionised workplaces. It is not only the Amazons and Ubers of the world that are behind it.

The standard response to the question of new technology is that some jobs will go, others will be created, and so we need better training to allow people to acquire new skills when this happens. But it should be clear that this doesn’t touch on the issues workers are already facing. In fact, this response seems to rely on a vision of the future where all workers become self-employed freelancers managing their own time. That looks more utopian than any of the ideas I remember from the 1970s. The technological trajectory we are seeing will not just replace work, it will greatly intensify the work already being done.

Crucially, we need to recognise that the way the world of work will develop in the future is not pre-determined. It will reflect questions of ownership, control, and the balance of forces in the economy. If we continue on a path where over 70 per cent of workers are not in a union, and where ownership and control of the economy are concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest in society, we shouldn’t be surprised if the story of the next forty years is the same as the last forty, and the workplace becomes an ever harsher environment.

Our political demands therefore have to be aimed at delivering the irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people that Labour’s 1974 manifesto described. Driving up trade union membership and rolling out new trade union rights, including sectoral collective bargaining, must be a central mission of a Labour government if workers are going to have a say in how technology is used in the workplace. Alongside this, we urgently need a pathway to a four-day week to shape the future world of work, as well as an ambitious agenda for worker ownership of companies to address entrenched inequality. These demands are at the centre of the CWU’s call for a New Deal for Workers in this country.

Industrially, as the CWU is doing in BT and Royal Mail, unions are also putting intensity of work, and working time, at the centre of their demands. All through my working life we have had to deal with bad and sometimes bullying managers making unacceptable demands of our members. What’s different now is the technology that they have at their disposal to plan, monitor, and control every minute of people’s working lives. The CWU is determined to be the union that does something about this. We will not accept the pressure that our members are now coming under.

This can be a major issue for trade unions to organise around and recruit in new areas. It can also be an issue that brings unions together. At a time when debate has been dominated by Brexit and questions that divide us, we have to move the agenda on and start dealing with the issues that workers will face in or out of the EU. Forty years ago many of us believed technology would benefit us all. It didn’t. If we don’t start winning the fights today over the technology of tomorrow, forty years from now it’s going to look so much worse.