Unions must adopt digital mindsets to attract young people

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A panel at Unions 21’s annual conference discussed the potential of technology to track work hours and quality and put employees in a stronger bargaining position

Unions need to transform and adopt a digital mindset to reach younger workers, according to Christina Colclough, director of platform and agency workers, digitalisation and trade at union UNI Global.

Speaking on a panel at Unions 21’s annual conference, 'The Future of Collective Voice', Colclough said that unions will often say they don’t “get” young workers. But “we don’t get them because we never listen”, she said.

“How many young people are in your statutory bodies… how many young people turn up to your member meetings?” she asked trade union representatives.

“We need to have guts for change,” Colclough continued, adding that “this is the union movement’s biggest challenge”.

Pointing to an initiative she is working on called Project Spotlight, Colclough explained that digital technology can be used by unions to improve young workers’ job quality and voice in the digital world of work.

While job opportunities may be on the rise, many of these are “precocious”, such as zero-hours roles, she said. Colclough warned that while she hears young people say “the robots are coming” and that there will be “no jobs” in the future world of work, they then reveal, when asked, that they aren't doing anything to counteract this.

“And [they] are often competing against each other,” she said, warning: “What happens in society when people go from being colleagues to competitors?”

Project Spotlight aims to give workers access to information from their phones to collectively gain power. “We see on the news that technology is taking snapshots of websites employees are looking at so employers can see if they are likely to leave,” Colclough explained. “Data synergy is putting us in a weak bargaining position as employers know more about us than we do.”

She encouraged the use of smartphone data to track work hours and quality. With commuting time higher than in the past and many employees sending emails or doing other work on their commutes, she raised the question of whether this should be classed as work time; she said this time could be tracked and measured through an app.

“Then the employee can share this info with their union if they want, and the union gets the data and looks to see if there is a campaign here to negotiate with management for change,” she said.

Other examples given were to record whether workers on their feet get adequate breaks through the tracking on their smartphones in their pockets, and sleep patterns to monitor stress. "Anecdotal stories don’t change things; we need proof,” she said. “Unions need to value data.”

Colclough asked the audience how many unions are still using Excel spreadsheets rather than a CRM and many put up their hands. “Many unions haven’t started structuring this data,” she said, adding that there is the opportunity to “use insights from data to gain power back” in the future world of work.

“Technology is transforming every area of the business world and organisational structures as we have access to everything [in our phones] – any question can be answered in a second,” added Natasha Kizzie, industry manager at Google UK, referring to smartphones as people’s “Swiss-army knives”.

Through this transformation, power has shifted from companies to consumers, she explained, and this is also leading to a cultural power shift in organisations to the employees.

Pointing to Agile and scrum working, Kizzie said organisations must “empower people to have an active role in products of the future”.

She encouraged unions seeking to better utilise data to “take a look at what you’re calling an email list, reframe it as a CRM". She added: "Are you really giving them the best member experience or are you spamming them with stuff they’re not engaging with?”

Anthony Hayes, digital campaigner at the TUC, shared how the union's petition software Megaphone, which is a similar format to Change.org petitions, uses the “value of public campaigning as a public movement for industrial campaigning”.

This software can give “workers interaction of what it’s like to be in a collective movement”.

The key to reaching young people, however, is a sustained, long-term strategy, said Colclough. “A one-off is never going to work… young people want a sense unions are actually listening… we should all move away from WhatsApp.”

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