Digitalisation in the service sector. How Unions and Researchers can collaborate

Author: Ursula Holtgrewe, Centre for Social Innovation

In the context of social innovation, trade unions can mostly be considered “unusual suspects”. They are rarely present outside the spheres of “workplace innovation” but in fact aim to change and improve social practices, empower workers and need to continuously innovate their own organisations and modes of working in the process. Indeed, labour movements, trade unions and the institutions of social partnership, collective bargaining and interest representation are respectable #socialinnov in their own right. They also demonstrate the dimension of power relations and struggles around social innovation. In the context of globalisation, digitalisation and company restructuring and emerging new and hyperflexible modes of working, unions feel particular needs to innovate themselves, form new alliances and address new constituencies in new ways.

The UNI Europa project „Shaping Industrial Relations in a Digitalising Services Industry – Challenges and Opportunities for Social Partners“, in cooperation with “ZSI – Zentrum für Soziale Innovation” and funded by the European Commission, aimed to identify and analyse change factors and explore new approaches for social partners to maintain effective industrial relations systems in a digitalising services industry. Among its activities in research and debate, the results of one workshop, conducted on October 16, 2018 in particular are of interest to social innovation. It brought together a mixed group of European service researchers and unionists from various service sector unions who brainstormed and networked on a range of service-industry and digitalisation-related questions. The workshop provided lively exchanges and a genuinely collaborative atmosphere, and effectively put the different bodies of knowledge of research, union practice and strategy development on an equal footing. One discussion addressed new and developing modes of collaboration between academics and trade unions.

Participants considered various ideas for mutual benefit and the contributions each “side” could make to the other’s activities. Such collaborations are common in many Nordic and Continental European countries where working life studies, “humanisation” of working life or workplace innovation are academically established and have a funding and collaboration infrastructure that goes beyond trade unions’ own research capacities. Elsewhere, unions’ access to academic expertise is less common. There is interest in rendering these collaborations more transnational and multi-level and in bringing in and combining new views. Collaborations should cross sectors and also policy levels from the local to the transnational.

Some participants argued that they should include the employer side as well. Indeed, academics could have a part as a “catalyst […] for a dialogue between industry & trade unions”. This would apply especially in those sectors and regions where social dialogue is not well-established or where it is to be extended to new subjects such as digitalisation. With regard to social dialogue, union-academic collaborations could provide input for negotiations and function as “sounding boards” for new approaches and strategies.

Unionists point out that they have genuine contributions to make to research into working life and services. They know their respective fields and sectors well and can provide data and also contacts and access to both companies and workers. Joint problem-solving and the development, sharing and analysis of “best practices” should play a central part in union-academic collaborations. “Share problems -> investigate working models” is a concise suggestion. While often, unionists and worker representatives take limited roles in working life research as informants or members of a steering group, more co-creation in the research process could be achieved by keeping “stakeholders involved over the entire course of the project/study”. Strategy development is a genuinely co-creative activity, for example in “defending rights of unsecured workers”.

Concrete suggestions to promote collaborations were the “experimental spaces” or “participation labs” that are familiar to social innovators but are also known as temporary structures in some workplace participation projects. ICT-based platforms, possibly supported by regular real-life events could provide Europe-wide information on “who is who” and “who does what” in research and practice in subjects that are critical to trade unions. Ways for unions to communicate their research interests to wider academic communities should also be explored.

On the research side, there is one challenge remaining: research outputs and incentives tend to be aimed at academic formats, following the conventions of peer-review, ranking of journals and conferences etc. Policy outputs in many academic contexts are no less labour-intensive, but may carry less academic reputation – although the incentives of putting scientific insights to social use should not be underrated either. Possibly, unions could also develop the role they have in existing collaborations: training and challenging academics in disseminating their work to application contexts, an expertise that is often underrepresented in universities.