Tech workers say: ‘We’ve got to keep an eye on AI’

Your Voice

Matt Buckley, from the CWU tech workers branch UTAW, asks why trade unions were not invited to last month’s high-profile international gathering called to discuss the impacts of artificial intelligence… 

In early November, Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak played host to the Global AI Safety Summit, an event that brought world leaders together to discuss concerns around the risks posed by advancements in AI (artificial intelligence) technology, with the aim of constructing an international consensus in response. The presence of major figures, including US vice-president Kamala Harris and UN secretary-general António Guterres, firmly established the issue as one of increasing global concern, whilst the summit itself simultaneously demonstrated how severely lacking the UK’s approach to these challenges has been so far.

Notably, it was not just the attendance of senior international political figures that made an impression, but tech executives including Elon Musk and Sam Altman of OpenAI – individuals who now arguably hold more power than the leaders of many of the nations represented in the room. As if proof of such, Rishi Sunak’s interview with Elon Musk was described as “the most embarrassing political event … ever witnessed” by columnist Ian Dunt, and Labour accused the Prime Minister of “angling for a job” as his party continues its long-overdue collapse.

Conservatives putting their own interests first is nothing new. It would, therefore, come as little surprise if Mr Sunak’s career ambitions after his departure from Number 10 soon emerge as a key reason why the Government has continued to place control over the future of AI technology in the hands of big tech, relying on voluntary compliance rather than actual legislation or regulation to prevent the “serious, even catastrophic harm,” that the Bletchley Declaration warns there is potential for.

Whilst Mr Sunak may now go onto use this event to show off his diplomatic credentials post-2024, his Government continues to refuse to legislate on the risks posed by AI in the here and now. Despite calls from our branch, from the CWU nationally, the TUC, and numerous other civil society organisations that it was imperative to do so, the summit failed to include the voices of workers in any of the debates or surrounding fringe events.

CWU members have been at the forefront of the deployment of new AI technologies in the workplace, so it is no surprise that the CWU stands tall amongst those trade unions most involved in developing strategies to protect not just our members, but all workers, from AI technology deployed for the sole benefit of employers – often to the detriment of workers. It was the CWU’s Karen Rose at this year’s TUC who moved an important motion on this subject.

Just this June, CWU NEC member Luke Elgar was one of several trade unionists who spoke at a TUC/Connected By Data event held in a House of Commons Committee Room about workers’ experiences of AI. Luke shared how postal workers are tracked, their time increasingly micro-managed and walking speed dictated by an algorithm. At the same time, members of the CWU research department and our UTAW branch have worked hard alongside the TUC and other organisations to contribute to the development of the Artificial Intelligence (Regulation & Workers’ Rights) Billa Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Labour MP Mick Whitley (Birkenhead).

If the Government won’t ensure a future where the development of AI technologies benefits, rather than harms us, then the institutions of organised labour must take up the challenge.

Spinning our CWU web wider

CWU head of recruitment & organising Ray Ellis on the impressive growth of the union’s tech sector UTAW Branch and at other successes beyond the CWU’s traditional areas…

The most notable growth has occurred in the tech sector, where our national branch UTAW has more than doubled its membership to over the 3,000 mark over the course of 2023. As a result of this, there are CWU members working in a widening range of tech sector companies, including Apple Retail, Monzo, Google, AndDigital, MadeTech and Microsoft. Our aim is, of course, to achieve full collective bargaining rights – via formal recognition agreements – at these companies.

This aspiration is moving forward at different stages in these various companies, depending on relative membership levels, densities and relations with the employers. And what’s great here is the enthusiasm of our tech sector activists, as well as the new and innovative ways in which this new group of CWU members is approaching these challenges – all fully supported by the CWU recruitment and organising team.

Our targeted leafleting recently has included a presence at the Microsoft workers’ conference in Enfield – there’s been a growth in union membership at the Enfield site since Microsoft acquired Metaswitch in 2022. Field organiser Sara Barnicoat, who led on this, says: “Hybrid/WFH working is common among these workers, so this event was a good opportunity for us to engage with members and potential members in-person and there’s a specific online contact link here if you work at Microsoft and want more information.

“We’ve also leafletted a software company called Unity at its Brighton office,” Sara continues. “There’s a UTAW organising team in Brighton, working on building a union in the workplace. If you would like to get involved in this, there’s a link here for further information.”

The Power of Small Wins

Outside of the tech sector, we’ve also made some significant strides forward, representing workers at businesses such as Maintel, Wincanton and DHL (of which more detail below) and this is set to step up in 2024. Our aim being to continue bringing the benefits of union organisation to new groups of workers, which is vital to protecting and promoting the interests of all our members going forward into the future.

In the case of DHL, one of the largest logistics companies in the UK, we have just signed our first recognition agreement for Customer Services working on the Morrison’s contract at Bury Point. And in the New Year, I’ll be attending a meeting with DHL Site Management and HR. If we can identify smaller bargaining units which would qualify for recognition, then it is only right and proper that we deliver collective bargaining for union members in these areas.

One of our field organisers, Alan Smith, who has worked hard on this project – as well as on others – made the important point that “we already had almost 100 per cent membership within this group of workers, so they were keen for the union to help negotiate a fairer pay deal for them in line with other grades on site.”

As was the case with DHL, this can sometimes be an easier route to voluntary recognition, as management can clearly see the strength of feeling amongst smaller groups of workers. As another of our field organisers who has also worked hard on this and other campaigns, Elaine Taylor, commented: “One of the biggest challenges with any long-term organising campaign is maintaining hope that the union will eventually win recognition, which is why this approach is beneficial to all of our members on site.”

This methodology gives the CWU a toehold into companies where we have existing membership, so we can build workers confidence that recognition is possible, whilst initiating a relationship with the employer at the same time.

And I’m pleased to report that, after months of collaborative working with 1st Class Credit Union, a voluntary union recognition agreement was signed with them when our field organiser in Scotland, Gerry Robertson, and I met with the board and chair, Bruce Devenport, to sign the agreement last month. Staff at 1st Class Credit union now have a recognised union, the CWU, and are members of the Glasgow & Motherwell Branch.