Dealing With New Technology

Dealing With New Technology

Workplaces keep changing, not always for the better and very rarely is the well-being of the workers the key reason for the change. Consider these everyday situations:

Situation 1:

The boss at Cyborg Inc. calls for a meeting of the union committee.

I just wanted to let you know that we're bringing some new equipment into the assembly area. It should start arriving in a couple of months.

Louisa, the chief steward says, You've never let us know ahead of time when you're bringing in new machines, what's really going on?

The boss replies, Well it's a little different this time, but it's a good thing. We're bringing in some robots that will do most of the assembly work, so eventually, about 75 out of the 100 workers will be laid off. But in the long run it will save jobs.

Situation 2:

Betina Salasie is the day shift steward at Morning Glory Hospital. The head nurse calls her in at the beginning of her shift.

We're starting an experimental program to help us get more efficient in providing care for our patients. We want you and some other nurses to start wearing these new ID badges.

How is wearing a new ID badge going to help out with the under-staffing problem? Betina sarcastically comments.

They let us know where you are at all times so we can more efficiently use your skills, the head nurse replies.

You mean it lets you track me like some dot on the computer screen? Betina says.

The head nurse replies, Well that's sort of a crude way to put it, we prefer to say it optimizes our efficiency.

Situation 3:

The repair men at "Stoves R Us" are called into a meeting and informed by the Department head:

We are moving into the 21st century. From now on you will no longer report to the main building. Your trucks will be equipped with all the parts you need. Each morning the computer installed in the truck will contain a list of your customers. If you need anything you can email the office from your truck and either the parts will be delivered to you or you can come get them later. And remember, the email system is company property, you can't use it for personal business, especially union business.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, workers and their unions have had to deal with the effects of new technology. While the technology in use today is vastly different from that of 200 years ago, the effects on workers is often quite similar. Technology is used to make people work faster, to eliminate employees, to monitor and control workers and in a new twist, to keep workers from getting together. All this is usually done to create greater profits for the business. In the case of non-profit organizations, new technology is often used to cut costs to give higher pay to the administrators.

To give an indication of how long this issue has been around consider this: the word sabotage comes from the French word for wooden shoes, sabots. In the early days of the industrial revolution (about 250 years ago) French workers who were skilled weavers were being replaced by mechanical looms. In frustration they would throw their sabots into the machines, thus stopping production.

New Technology _ a Blessing and a Curse

The "curse" part of new technology is easy to figure out. Here's another problem: in many cases if the employer doesn't employ new technology they will look for other ways to increase their profits. This could be demands for wage and benefit cuts or moving the work to regions of the world where workers are forced to work for lower wages. In many cases it is up to the union to make demands on the employer to force them to employ new technology. The trick for the union is how to do this and minimize potential job losses.

New Technology and Bargaining

The best approach is for the union to negotiate contract language that compels the employer to bargain before new technology is employed. Here's sample language:

The Company agrees to notify the union in a timely fashion when it is considering the introduction of new technology. For the purposes of this article, technology will be defined as any changes in techniques, machines, controls, materials, processes and work organizations. The Company agrees to bargain with the union over all effects this new technology will have on the bargaining unit. Employees displaced by new technology will be re-trained for new jobs. Job loss, if any, will come through normal attrition or early retirement.

Of course the best time to negotiate language is BEFORE the employer makes plans for the introduction of new technology.

What if there is no specific contract language?

Even if there is no specific contract language dealing with new technology, there is still protection in most UE contracts. It is contained in the Recognition Clause.

The employer recognizes the UE as the sole and exclusive bargaining representative for all employees for the purposes of negotiating wages, hours and conditions of employment.

The introduction of new technology if it will have any effect on union members is covered by this clause. Any major change in working conditions is a subject for bargaining between the employer and the union. It doesn't mean that the union can stop the employer from using the new technology, but the employer must bargain over the effects the new technology will have on the workers.

Bargaining issues can include:

  • Wages
  • Job descriptions
  • Training for placement on the job
  • Re-training for displaced workers
  • Severance pay if workers are permanently laid off
  • Early retirement programs
  • Right to use workplace e-mail for union communications

Special Issues: New Skills, Surveillance, and Personal Usage

New Skills

One key issue when dealing with new technology is that the new jobs or new skills required should be kept within the bargaining unit. In the 1960's and 70's as more and more companies introduced computer controlled machine tools, this was a big issue. The employers often wanted the programming and running of the machine to be separate jobs, with the programming part given to non-union employees. The union wanted to keep the new skills under the control of union members. The new skills should mean higher pay and knowledge of how to program the machines was power.


Many forms of new technology can be used as forms of surveillance. The union should treat this just like any other form of surveillance and make the employer bargain over the effects this will have on people. It is a change in working conditions. When employers started installing video cameras, supposedly to cut down on theft, the NLRB quickly ruled that this is a mandatory subject for bargaining. Unions put limits on where cameras could be installed (bathrooms were definitely out of bounds) and demanded that workers be notified of the existence of the cameras.

The use of ID badges that have proximity sensors imbedded in them, that can be used to track employees, need to have some limits placed on them. If an employee, like a nurse who is constantly on the move is to be held responsible for her/his every movement, then perhaps the union should negotiate paid time for that nurse so she can keep a journal of her movements. That may seem ridiculous, but the union should counter this new form of surveillance.

Personal Usage

Employers have been cracking down on employees using worksite computers to send e-mails for personal reasons. Many employers routinely establish policies that they have the right to read all employees' e-mail. Some court decisions have upheld this invasion of privacy. UE Stewards should quickly try to establish and/or negotiate the right to use e-mail for union business. If the employer sends e-mail notices to the union then the union should demand its right to use the same technology to communicate, not just with the employer but with other union members.

In situations like the road service employees at "Stoves R Us," the use of e-mail could be critical for the union to keep functioning. Workers may go days without seeing another employee, where they used to see everyone at least once a day. New technologies demand new forms of union organization!

What about the Management Rights Clause?

Employers will often point to the Management Rights clause and say they don't have to bargain with the union over new technology because that clause gives them the right to run the business or workplace. There are two types of Management Rights clauses, general clauses and clauses that are issue specific and therefore mean the union has given up rights to bargain over this issue.

For example the statement, "It is the right of the employer to run the business" is a general clause, the union hasn't given up any rights to bargain over specific issues.

The statement, "The employer has the sole right to set the starting and quiting times." This is very specific and means the union has agreed the employer can set the starting and quitting times without bargaining with the union.

A statement in the Management Rights clause that says, "The employer has the right to determine production methods" is usually considered to be a general statement of fact but it is general enough that the employer must still bargain over the effects changing production methods would have on the employees.

The Shorter Work Week

Since the 1950's when new technology began to have a big impact on workers in America, one solution the UE promoted is a shorter work week at no loss in pay. This would solve many of the problems of the chronic unemployment and underemployment that workers face. In the 1970's and early 1980's some UE shops actually negotiated 35 hour work weeks at 40 hours pay. This vision should be kept alive.

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