The pandemic has accelerated technological change and the adoption of new tools. Remote learning, working from home, and having virtual meetings went from occasional to routine in less than a year. While some of these will no doubt lose their attractiveness once COVID-19 is under control, others will have a long-lasting impact on the way we live and work.
Public Services International refers to digitalization in public services as a whole range of consequences stemming from the interaction between public service users and workers with new digital technologies. Thankfully, CUPE did not wait for the pandemic to start thinking about the effects of digitalization and robotics on work and workers.
In fact, at the 2019 National Convention, CUPE members identified in Strategic Directions that the changing nature of work was threatening stable and permanent public sector jobs and that “automation, advances in artificial intelligence, and the growing reach of digital networks threatens our members’ work and their privacy.”
CUPE Quebec has established a New Technology Committee to oversee the development of artificial intelligence and other technologies such as 5G, server virtualization, and automation. “As union members, all of us will be confronted by these technological advances in one way or another in the medium to long term. We must be familiar with them to influence government authorities, prevent layoffs and negotiate working conditions adapted to this new context,” explained Tulsa Valin-Landry, acting President of the provincial Communications sector.
For digitalization to be a net positive, we must ensure it lives up to its promise of enhancing public service quality, effectiveness, and accessibility for users, while improving working conditions and creating good employment opportunities.
This is what happened to the members of CUPE 3034, the municipal workers in the Town of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland. The local pushed hard for automation to support their municipal waste collection and its efforts were well rewarded. This adaptation made it easier to tackle their health and safety issues.
“Collecting garbage is dirty, dangerous work. Automation makes that job much safer,” said Corey Mitchell, who worked for the contractor before the town brought solid waste services back in house in 2012, ending 30 years of unreliable and expensive service.
This automation was embraced as it was done publicly, without the use of a public-private partnership. This project has given workers ownership over these technological changes as they look to increase their recycling service rates for residents.
As union members, this is what we aim for when we face technological change: better service, no job cuts, improved health and safety and more transparency.