Like many people in HR, I’m reading a lot about the possible future of work. It’s a fascinating topic, in which there are a multitude of predictions about the those trends we may all have to face over the next few decades; globalisation, the hollowing out of work, ever changing and improving technology, demographic change. Not to mention the ever ridiculous generational generalisations.
“Depending on what you read, we are all going to be working flexibility in a Coffice having given up the office, embracing self-employment, sending our Avatar to meetings for us, or getting our cognitive assistant to pick up the admin”.
But here’s the thing. Whether it’s a good book, white paper, or just a cheeky infographic, when it comes to the literature on the future of work, not once have I yet seen anyone mention trade unions. Not in the HR space. It just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Just a decade or so ago, this would have been unthinkable. Trade unions dominated many industries, and union leaders were household names. I took a look at the agenda for a senior HR leaders conference taking place next year. They are building much of their content around the future of work and the future of Human Resources, and there is no mention of unions there, either.
I spent much of my early career in roles dominated by traditional style industrial relations. Collective agreements, large representative committees, traditional pay bargaining. I’ve noticed that it is now increasing rare to even see the job title ‘employee relations’. The thought occurs: outside of some specific sectors, how much do HR professions see working with trade unions in the future as important at all?
Where do the trade unions fit in the possible, predicted, future of work? We all know the numbers so far. Trade union membership and collective bargaining has been undergoing a slow, steady decline since the late 1970s. The reasons for the decline are numerous, and interconnected. The vast majority of the 6m or so members that are left are in the public sector, or were until they were outsourced. And here is a Gen Y fact for you: 10% of current trade union members are aged between 16-24. The bulk of the rest are the so called Boomers, who in the not too distant future will be heading towards retirement.
If future of work predictions hold true, over the next ten years we will see the hollowing out of work. There will be over demand for very high skill workers, and a surplus of low skilled workers. What can be outsourced to the developing world, or taken over by technology will be, leaving us with a big gap in the middle of the labour market. If this proves to be true, who will the member of trade unions be, a decade or two down the line?
The world of work is becoming increasingly individualised; most terms and conditions are determined directly, with fewer and fewer collective pay bargaining arrangements. As flexible and remote working increases, and the traditional office environment decreases (if indeed it does), then where does collective action actually form?
The various predictions about the future of work present very real challenges for trade unions. There are some HR professionals who see this as a good thing. I’m not so sure. The role of trade unions in the labour market is hotly debated and has been written about for years. Whatever your political stance may be, they present a check and balance within the labour market. And many of the employment rights that we enjoy today, trade unions campaigned for, sometimes for decades.
I’d love to know how the trade unions are planning for the future of work, planning on meeting the potentially huge changes that are predicted for our labour markets over the next decade or so. Maybe it is time for them to enter the debate?