The future of work: implications for unions

It is essential for unions to address the intense pressures for change now found in workplaces. While nowhere near as cataclysmic as futurists would suggest, these forces pose major dilemmas for unions – as well as opportunities. This article suggests that if unions seize the challenges presented by these currents of workplace change, they will continue to defy their critics by demonstrating their evolving role in a democratic society. Two questions are addressed: What are the trends shaping the future of work? And how can unions respond in ways that will invigorate the labour movement for the 21st century? Detailed analysis of available Canadian data and research identifies the major forces already exerting pressures for change on workplaces. Put simply, the shape of tomorrow’s workplace is visible today.
The economic environment of the ’80s and ’90s has created human dislocation and organizational turmoil. Persistently high unemployment, downsizing, economic globalization, relentless technological change, the polarization of working conditions and incomes, the weight of public deficits and debt, and a crisis in management define work in the ’90s. A huge literature on the future of work has sprung up, debating the nature and implications of these and other changes, complemented by prescriptive management writings. Future-of-work writers cluster into two large camps: the optimists who champion change, and the pessimists who are critics of change. In between is a third cluster — let’s call them the pragmatists — who advocate policy responses to shape change in specific directions.
Much future-of-work literature as thin on analysis, speculative, and rife with hunches mascarading as facts. When reading the latest prescriptive management literature, bear in mind that the reforms advocated are seldom easily or completely applied in work organizations. This is entirely consistent with the history of management practice. The latest research on high performance work systems, for example, suggests that few Canadian employers have implemented these changes comprehensively. If the futuristic literature on work and management tells us anything, it is that we are at an historic juncture where the way is open for new ideas and approaches. For unions, this means that in an environment where the very future of work is being debated, there is opportunity to influence its direction by proposing clear alternatives. How work will be organized and managed in future will be determined by negotiations and power struggles in which unions can play a vital role.
Labour must address the profound contradictions affecting the lives of workers today. For example, many workers are putting in longer hours at a time in their lives when they want to work less, but have no economic choice, while over 1.5 million are jobless. Moreover, despite all the emphasis on people-centred organizations, downsizing remains the dominant management strategy even in times of profitability, and survivor syndrome is the malaise of the 1990s. On the technology front, contrary to predictions that computerization will destroy and degrade jobs, the majority of Canadian workers think their jobs have improved because of computers and few attribute job loss to automation. While workers may find the notion of a “learning organization” appealing, so far Canadian employers have a poor record of training and underemploy a sizable proportion of the workforce. Indeed, the majority of jobs being created are in the bottom tiers of the service sector, not in the high-tech knowledge sectors of the “new economy”. And while it is true that there is heightened public concern about unemployment and job security, we also should not lose sight of the fact that may workers also want employment that is both flexible and challenging. These contradictory forces suggest a rather different image than those presented by futurists. By examining the evidence for these and related trends, I raise concrete issues for unions to reflect upon as they devise organizing and collective bargaining strategies for the 21st century.
As they plan for the future, unions are encouraged to consider the importance of part-time and temporary workers among future unionists, the urgency of recruiting young workers, and of addressing human resource development issues that management has already placed on the change agenda. Balancing work and family, job quality and “learning” also must become core issues for unions. And union strategists need to respond to the needs of the sizable number of workers who feel undervalued and underutilized. I also urge unions to be more attentive to their own human resources. Innovative and flexible approaches to union service must be pursued. The threat to unions posed by the new human resource management and high performance work systems can be reduced if unions counter with a clear vision of their own. But this can’t be a retreat. More broadly, the public debate about the future of work is up for grabs. Unions can articulate the concerns of those workers who now lack a collective voice, counterbalancing the dominant strains of management.
This article is a revised version of The Fourteenth Sefton Memorial Lecture, presented at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto, 27 March 1996.
Published in: Relations industrielles/Industrial Relations 53, 2 (1998): 235-57.