When union veteran and former Labor cabinet minister Greg Combet met unionists at Sydney’s Trades Hall in 2016 his message was stark.
Not only were unions facing record low membership, they also faced the very real threat that “some young tech dude” would create the means to replace them.
“Anything you want to know that an industrial officer might historically have looked up – all available to an individual now on a phone,” Combet said.
“There’s absolutely nothing stopping someone developing an app like that and really hitting to the heart of trade union business.”
The warning was clear: adapt or perish.
Union membership has long been in decline but the trend has accelerated in recent years to the point where today, just 15 per cent of workers belong to a union. That drops to 10 per cent when restricted to the private sector.
In many ways this is not surprising. In the age of Uber and Airtasker, the union structure remains largely the same as it was a century ago, tied to a time when the workplace was geographically based and organised by sector, industry and employer.
As one union official told AFR Weekend “if you have a company who hasn’t innovated their product in 120 years you’ve probably got a dead company.”
But there are some signs of new life. Almost at the eleventh hour it seems, workers and unions are experimenting with new alternatives to organising in the workplace.
Some have taken to digital organising, others are using artificial intelligence to boost engagement, and even “young tech dudes” are developing ideas for decentralised unions powered by blockchain.
While the old union structure may be going the way of the dodo, it seems the urge among those earning a living in a similar way to communicate, collaborate and even collectively agitate is not dead yet.
‘Creating an organisable universe’
This year, two former union officials turned consultants introduced IBM’s artificial intelligence brain, Watson, into Australian workplaces.
The AI chatbot, known as WorkIt, answers employee questions about their rights, benefits and workplace issues, all via their smartphones.
It also promises to create a new model of worker-led organisation.
The AI was first used in the United States to organise and spread information among Walmart workers and resulted in 11,000 downloads in 12 months.
Now, the hospitality union, United Voice, is trialling it with more than 100 workers at Star casino in Sydney and two casinos in Queensland.
Former United Voice official Troy Burton, who brought the technology to Australia with his business partner, ex-Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Tim Lyons, stresses WorkIt is not simply an app for workers to sign up to a union.
“Workit is a different question – it’s what do you have to give people of value to connect? So we talk about it as a creating an organisable universe, rather than a recruitment tool in itself.
“The information is the gateway – what people look for – but it then provides an opportunity to connect people in ways that transcend the workplace.”
WorkIt’s algorithm draws from hundreds of legislation, company policies, and enterprise agreements and is trained by experts in the union to provide the most accurate and useful answers to workers.
The AI learns quickly. Burton says WorkIt has gone from answering just 20 per cent of questions accurately to more than 60 per cent in the space of three months.
If workers aren’t satisfied with the response, they get directed to an industrial officer in the union who can assist them.
WorkIt also offers specialised chat groups where workers can get assistance from colleagues or strategise with workers with similar experiences.
The result is the barrier to union engagement is lowered significantly.
A new type of unionist
Already Burton says WorkIt has uncovered a new type of unionist.
“We’ve noticed it is a unique pathway into the union for a role that is perhaps less active and more expert.
“There are some people who are putting hours into answering people’s questions and strategising how to use WorkIt.
“That engagement with the information is different to the typical activist who gets excited about the bargaining campaign and the mobilising.”
Workers are also connecting in ways that go beyond employers or workplaces and cut across stores and locations.
In Walmart’s case, the biggest active group to emerge was ‘Respect the Bump’ – a group made up of pregnant women or women returning to work after having children. Their discussions were about the company but also extended to parenting advice.
Even smaller firms and disaggregated workplaces, which unions have almost given up on due to the drain on resources, now appear in reach.
“It has terrific application whereever people are isolated in some way – whether geographically or whether people work by themselves or are split up,” Burton says.
“I think of cleaners in particular working in buildings where they don’t see each other all that often, I think of mine workers working 24 hours a day, seven days a week spread across the country.”
Unions harness power of big data
Burton says the app also provides something potentially even more valuable to a union. Data.
There’s a saying among unions that “the argument of our strength is more important than the strength of our argument”.
But the WorkIT data promises both.
Over time, the union expects to gain insights from WorkIt about the systemic issues affecting a workforce, potentially giving it the upper hand in bargaining or campaigns.
“It makes it more persuasive,” Burton says. “It also makes the representatives confident that they’re well informed about what’s going on with the membership.”
WorkIt’s ultimate promise is addressing what unionists call the “holy grail” – connecting the online world with the offline.
Despite their outdated structures, unions have proven expert at online campaigning and fundraising.
But translating those campaigns into sustainable connections beyond a particular issue has proved elusive.
Daniel Schlademan, the US-based union official who piloted WorkIt at Walmart almost a year ago, says the app has recorded “huge” rates of conversion into membership.
He is now introducing extra functions for a 3.0 version and expects to roll it out to other industries and countries in 2018.
“We absolutely believe this will be the future of organising, for better or worse.”
Burton is taking a more cautious approach, not only in training the AI over time but also in seeing WorkIt as just one part of the answer to unions’ problems.
“It’s not a silver bullet – it’s not a magic app that’s suddenly going to appeal to hundreds of thousands of people disconnected from the union movement.
“But we think it fits in with some tools and methodologies for offline and online that provide easier access.”
A union DAO
Others are looking for ways to transform unions entirely.
Hugo O’Connor, innovation head at Sydney bitcoin company Bit Trade, last year raised $184 million in crowd-funding to create the first decentralised corporation, with no management and no boards.
His proposal was to use blockchain, a core component of bitcoin, to develop trust networks that allow corporations to be autonomous without a controlling hierarchy.
Less well known is O’Connor’s plan to use blockchain to develop a decentralised union, known as UnionD.
O’Connor, who was part of the Occupy Sydney movement in 2011, says he developed the idea after recognising traditional unions weren’t suited to the horizontal labour market – where people sell their skills in a market that takes place outside of traditional corporate structures – or where people were atomised through the so-called sharing economies.
“More and more you have these big platforms like Uber which are essentially marketplaces that take rent – how do you combat that approach in a way that empowers the people that use that software?” O’Connor says.
“I was very curious how blockchain, as a technology to coordinate many different agents, could be used to create organisational structures that were more fluid, that enabled a bit of a hive mind, that enabled people to be part of several dozens of these organisations.”
He was also concerned about structures that privileged certain people at a time when the workforce was more educated, capable and had more access to information than ever before.
News of corruption of union officials and the power of career-driven factional operatives strengthened his concerns.
“I was frustrated because there are actually genuine issues that need to be addressed by something like a union but the unions that are there aren’t really very appealing, particularly to a transient workforce.”
According to O’Connor’s proposal, UnionD would use blockchain to bring “immediate transparency” to the finances of unions and increase direct democratic voting structures.
There would still be room for “apparatchiks” but their political capital would be allocated only by the explicit consent and will of their fellow members.
UnionD would also organise around attributes other than the workplace, such as shared skills – much like a craft union – with the promise of peer mentoring.
Labor-capital contract ‘breaking down’
Not everyone is convinced that technology is the answer.
Fellow at Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge, Peter Evans-Greenwood, says he’s skeptical a decentralised model wouldn’t simply replicate existing (and dying) organisations on a new platform.
In any case, he warns decentralisation is “not the magic pixie dust that people seem to think it is”.
Evans-Greenwood argues the problem for workplace organising is human rather than technological.
“The contract between labour and capital – and the institutions that enabled it (socialised health and unemployment insurance, unions) – is breaking down.”
That contract first emerged in the 1910s when industrialisation changed the nature of work and moved the bulk of the population from craft-based work to task-based work.
The transformation saw the creation of stressful and unsatisfying jobs with no future and that few wanted.
US industrialist Henry Ford’s immediate response was to raise the wage to $US5 a day. But that was effectively a stop-gap measure.
The long-term solution was to negotiate a contract between capital and labour to support the task-based work and develop social institutions to support it, such as unions and health care.
Evans-Greenwood argues globalisation has fractured this traditional workplace relationship and the rise of AI is forcing employers and unions to now rethink and reconstruct what “work” actually is.
“We’re moving from task-based work to behaviour-based work, where human works collaborate to make sense of the world and form problems, with the tasks of production handled by the machines.”
This raises big questions for unions including: how do they organise behaviour-based work; what is the nature of the worker-employer relationship; and what are the institutions required to support it.
“I think we’ll know what the future of labour organisation looks like once we have a better idea of what the answers to these questions are.
“It’s pretty clear though that it won’t look like existing arrangements [ with new technology.”
Craft unionism making a comeback
Hairdressers are starting their own union for the first time by organising through Facebook and social media, with the institutional backing of the Australian Workers Union.
AWU assistant national secretary Misha Zelinsky said hairdressers were the lowest paid trade and often underpaid, but they were united through a strong sense of professional identity.
“Organising around identity can be very powerful,” Zelinksy said.
“Hair stylists have a large pride in their work. They still feel professional but degraded.”
Hair Stylists Australia, which will formally launch in 2018, has received more than 8,000 likes on Facebook. Its campaign against the NSW government’s proposal to scrap the hairdresser’s qualification requirements had 22,000 sign-ups.
Zelinksy says the AWU is largely providing background support and the hairdressers are the ones setting the structure and fees of their union, which he describes as “craft unionism within a general union”.
The AWU is shifting its focus to professional identity as a means of organising, with Zelinsky saying “the days of sending a person and a car to organise site by site are over.”
“The question is how do u represent individual identity in a collective?”
As a result, the AWU is trialling new “industry reference groups” for workers in steel, aluminium, agriculture and oil and gas industries.
The program involves small advisory groups of members based around shared skills and professions to deepen member engagement.
In that sense, Zelinsky says the future of the hairstylists union could also be the future of unionism.
Rather than organising in small workplaces, hairstylists are organising across workplaces with “ambassadors” or delegates for particular areas.
“If we crack this issue… organising on scale in a disaggregated economy – that is the million dollar question.”