AI in the workplace

Unite delegate Tommy Murphy: workers must benefit from AI at work

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Unite delegate Tommy Murphy gave a thought-provoking intervention in a discussion on artificial intelligence in the workplace at TUC Congress on Tuesday (September 12).

Tommy said, “Workers in the print industry have long memories – and we remember the charging horses of the Wapping dispute where millionaires imposed automation by force.”

He warned that new digitisation and the rapid rise of AI “are undoubtedly more subtle than the brutality of that dispute, but if left unchecked the impact on workers’ jobs and livelihoods will be no less profound”.

“This debate is not about holding back the tide of progress – it never has been,” Tommy noted.  “It’s about the terms by which it is introduced and who benefits.”

Tommy highlighted research from analysts at McKinsey who forecast that AI could increase corporate profits by a further $4.4trn.

“It should be no surprise to us that this isn’t how workers experience it,” he told Congress.

Tommy raised the example of call centres.

“AI voice analytics is used not only to judge if a sale or a service was successful or the length of the call – but to judge the pitch and tone of a worker’s voice at every point of every call to give a workers ‘sentiment’ ratings,” he explained.

“This unheard of level of surveillance is happening from workers’ own laptops and devices within their own homes.”

Tommy agreed for the need of regulation and safeguards on image rights and intellectual property.

“But we must also focus on what only our movement can deliver – protection and fair distribution of the benefits of AI at work,” he said, adding that this can be achieved through new digital collective bargaining agreements.

Tommy also emphasised the importance of consultation on the introduction of new technology as well as protection from surveillance.

“And,” he added, “it must mean the fair distribution of productivity gains.”

Concluding his speech, Tommy told Congress, “I’ll let you in on a secret: this speech was written using AI – on ChatGPT.

“If AI can automate Congress delegates, then truly nobody is safe!” he said to laughter and applause.

The motion was carried.

By Hajera Blagg

Photo by Mark Thomas