Trade union recognition agreements typically set out details of the issues about which the parties will negotiate, as well as details of the facilities made available to trade union representatives to enable them to communicate with their members and fulfill specific roles, such as learning and health and safety.
As artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics have an increasing impact on our workplaces, the question is being asked about whether those traditional collective bargaining arrangements need to change to give unions a say on how and when new technology is introduced and what impact it will have on their members.
It could be argued that this is not an issue on which employers are obliged to negotiate, since the list of matters covered by the collective bargaining provisions was established by the relevant legislation in 1992. However, it is apparent the law hasn’t kept pace with changes in the workplace, as 27 years ago computers and digital technology were just starting to have an impact on our working lives – but not to the extent that robotics, drones and autonomous driving vehicles are widely forecast to have.
It is clear the new wave of technology is causing a real concern to trade unions, especially in manufacturing and engineering workplaces, with echoes of the concerns raised previously in relation to offshoring. If the predictions are true, it could have a similar impact in terms of numbers of redundancies, as well as a dramatic effect on job design and workforce structure.
Unions know they can't stop the tide of new technology and the issue for employers is how big a say they should have on its introduction, remembering that, if they can't agree, this is an issue that could ultimately result in industrial action.
Some unions are pushing for new technology agreements. Under the terms of these, new technology will only be introduced with the agreement of the trade union, and if the employer agrees to reinvest any cost savings to provide new jobs elsewhere in the organisation.
Employers need to find a way to open a dialogue with their recognised unions to ensure any new technology is successfully implemented in the workplace, and that they get the maximum return from the investment they make. It could be through a new technology agreement, which is effectively a bolt-on to the existing recognition agreement, or as an amendment to the existing agreement. Many employers are understandably reluctant to reopen the discussions about collective agreements, preferring to adopt the view that if it is working in practice, they should leave it alone.
It is, however, always worth keeping recognition agreements under review to ensure they continue to be relevant in the context of our changing workplaces. At one of those periodic reviews, employers should consider what, if any, changes need to be made to assist with the implementation of new technology. Those changes could include new technology representatives (as suggested by Unite in its draft new technology agreements) who are entitled to facility time and who report into a new technology sub-committee focusing on workers’ issues.
Such formal arrangements would not be appropriate in many workplaces, so it will be a matter of finding a mechanism which works and is as future-proofed as possible, given that the pace of the introduction of new technology continues to increase.
Paula Cole is an employment partner at UK law firm TLT