In the fight for workers’ rights, there’s power in numbers. Not just masses of union members, but also masses of data. At least that’s what Fredrik Söderqvist, a trade union researcher in Sweden, is banking on with a new algorithm he's developing to mine patterns to improve bargaining outcomes.
Söderqvist says his algorithm could help organizers anticipate when a company is vulnerable to bargaining, or likely to lay off workers. It could make major waves in Swedish labor; the white-collar, private sector union he works for, Unionen, has nearly 650,000 members — approximately 10 percent of Sweden’s working-age population.
Every day, Unionen receives more than 900 calls from members looking for advice or reporting problems at work. The information from these calls — who the caller is, where they work, what their complaint is — are logged in a massive database of information on the union’s membership that informs a broader picture of the Swedish labor market and economy.
The algorithm makes predictions based on how companies acted in the past. It can already anticipate broad economic trends and indicate how an incoming CEO might restructure a firm. The full implementation of the technology is contingent on Söderqvist ensuring his data gathering is in line with EU data protection rules; but eventually, Söderqvist hopes that it will be able to do more.
For example, if Sweden’s economic growth is forecast to slow, stagnate, or dip, the algorithm will be able to predict which sectors — and even which companies — will be likely to start laying people off or making pay cuts. On the other hand, if a company is likely to make strong profits and go on a hiring spree, the algorithm would be able to identify this and tell the union to initiate organizing efforts, with the aim of securing good employee contracts.
Söderqvist says that if unions can get ahead of the economic curve, they will be able to even the playing field for their members — both in terms of improving employment practices and in addressing risks to jobs posed by automation.
“Access to good information and analysis has always been integral to a union’s success,” Söderqvist said. “The exciting thing about our technology is that it provides really detailed, advanced insights into how the economy is going to behave, which gives us a big advantage when we go to negotiate with employers.”
Unionen is one of several examples in recent years in which tech — often seen as the enemy of the working man and woman — is being used to improve labor rights in Europe and the U.S.
Groups in Germany and the U.K. are also trying to use tech to their advantage. IG Metall, an industrial union with nearly 2.3 million members, managed to translate the higher productivity generated by automation into better work flexibility for members — namely the option of a 28-hour workweek, with the right to return to full-time.
Likewise, the umbrella body for U.K. trade unions in September called on the government and employers to join a commission where they can examine how the rise of AI and robotics might change labor practices to the benefit of workers — including by enabling a move to a four-day workweek without loss of income. “There is nothing inevitable about technology changing the world of work for the worse,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, which represents a total of 5.5 million British workers from 48 unions. “Apps could just as well be used to empower workers as exploit them.”
U.S. workers organize in and outside of unions
Europe is significantly more primed than the U.S. for innovation in organizing. To start, the U.S. has much lower levels of union membership: 10 percent of American workers belong to a union, compared to roughly 20 percent in the U.K. and Germany and 70 percent in Sweden.
Three decades ago, the figure in America was twice that. Union numbers have suffered for a multitude of reasons, including economic deregulation, industrial jobs shifting abroad, new technology being introduced, and growing numbers of Americans moving into more “flexible” kinds of freelance work. Recent legal rulings at the state and federal levels have also limited the ability of unions to recruit new members and bargain on a collective basis.
Yet growing numbers of Americans want to join a union. According to research conducted by MIT last year, 48 percent of non-union workers believe they would benefit from joining a labor organization — 16 percent more than in 1995. It’s not hard to see why: Inequality is spiraling out of control, the ultra-rich have doubled their share of America’s wealth over the past 40 years, and long-term wage growth remains largely anemic.
The material benefits of union membership are well-documented. In May, the UC Berkeley Labor Centre released a study showing that unionized workers in California earned on average 13 percent more than non-union workers, and were more than 37 percent more likely to receive health insurance through their employer.
Mark Zuckerman, president of the New York-based think tank The Century Foundation and a former policy adviser to Barack Obama, has long said unions should embrace technology to enable more U.S. workers to organize. He’s argued that union activists should build an online tool that would connect labor organizers and enable them to recruit more widely and anonymously.
“You can use digital marketing to literally contact millions of people and ask them, ‘Do you want to take action to form a union?’ Then you link to this tool and employees can start the process on their own,” Zuckerman said.
That technology does exist in nascent and ad hoc forms in the U.S. In 2016, staffers at Walmart launched WorkIt, a mobile app that uses an automated Q&A system to keep employees informed about their workplace rights. And in 2013, a communications firm for organized labor in Massachusetts, Prometheus Labor Communications, developed a digital platform called UnionConnect designed to improve communication between labor organizations and members.
Some of the most intense labor organizing efforts in the country are taking place inside the industry making these tools possible — tech, which is notorious for its hostility to the idea of organized labor — and on their own platforms.
Groups like Silicon Valley Rising, the Tech Workers Coalition, and Game Workers Unite are fighting to unionize a sector that’s heavily dependent on precarious and often intensely demanding jobs. There are organizing efforts on both the so-called low-skill end of the spectrum, where working conditions at some companies include so-called “zero-hours” contracts, meaning employees have no guaranteed work hours per week, and among white collar workers frustrated over high staff turnover and stressful working environments.
“This past year has been an extraordinary moment for game workers,” said Emma Kinema, an California-based organizer with Game Workers Unite, citing the fact that workers have felt empowered to share their complaints publicly. “The tech industries have hit their tipping point.”
And at some companies, rather than moving to formally unionize, workers are advocating for themselves via mainstream tech platforms.
Last month, The New York Times reported that a group of Amazon fulfillment-center workers in Minnesota forced the company to negotiate on workplace conditions after yearlong advocacy supported a local nonprofit. (Amazon reportedly framed the meetings as “community engagement.”) These were apparently the first-ever negotiation meetings with Amazon. The workers, who are Somali and were supported by a nonprofit focused on aiding East African workers, used WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging service to organize their labor meetings.
And in June, Google announced it wouldn’t renew a Pentagon contract to develop artificial intelligence with military applications after sustained opposition, much of it organized through an internal social media platform, from its own employees. At the same time, staff at Microsoft, buoyed by the #KeepFamiliesTogether hashtag on Twitter, rallied against the company’s decision to process data for the federal immigration authorities, which ultimately forced their employer to publicly distance itself from President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated undocumented children from their parents at the border.
With these tools, workers can already communicate, hold management accountable, and drum up publicity without formal organization, said professor Alan Hyde, an expert in labor and employment law at Rutgers University.
“It’s possible that tech workers would be better off exploring the potential of their current tools — online organizing, management accountability, publicity — rather than put energies into union organization that might not yield much in the way of additional practical benefits,” he said.
But Söderqvist, for his part, sees a future where unions can leverage new technologies, including social platforms, in their fight for better labor rights.
“The initial rise of trade unions [in the 18th and 19th centuries] was in part a response to societal changes caused by technological change,” said Söderqvist. “If unions are to regain their power, they need to embrace current changes — and exploit and experiment with new methods to achieve their goals.”
Cover: People demonstrate during a nationwide day of action of French civil servants against the French government's string of reforms on March 22, 2018, in Nantes, Western France. (Sipa via AP Images)