The Future of Work and the Future of Unions

The Future of Work and the Future of Unions event marked an amazing 150 years of the Trades Union Congress (TUC),Speakers2 and a special edition of Employee Relations, (co-edited by Paul Nowak and Andy Hodder) a leading international academic journal.

The event, chaired by the University of Birmingham’s Dr Andy Hodder, included a panel discussion of experts from various academic institutions across the UK. Discussions abounded on future challenges for trade unions, such as remaining relevant for younger generations and adjusting to allow for increased use of digital media.

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC, addressed the assembly with aplomb, opening his speech with the assurance that “the decisions that we make over the next couple of years will affect the union for decades to come”. He Cathyexpounded on recent political uncertainty, promising that the TUC will make the case for better investment in our physical and social infrastructure, to allow for an economy “that is based on good quality employment”.

Looking out over the lecture theatre based in one of the University’s newest buildings, Paul turned conversation towards better utilising digital means of communication. It’s a known fact that digitalisation has become one of the most notable drivers of businesses new and old in recent times, and Paul exhorted the importance of unions helping to “shape the forthcoming digital revolution”. Use of new technologies and AI could be of incredible benefit to promoting fair treatment and inclusivity in the workplace; “innovating and thinking differently about the way we innovate” could be invaluable to unions building towards improved rights for workers.

The ensuing panel discussion built on Paul’s foundational speech, featuring expert representatives from a range of UK Paul N BDA 1Universities. Melanie Simms of the University of Glasgow began by expressing the need for “new ways of organising workers”, citing the “different experience of work that young people are having”. Sian Moore from Greenwich University described the continued role that collective bargaining plays for UK workers, despite the downsides of the current political climate. Paul Lewis of the University of Birmingham spoke expansively on productivity and the potential of AI technologies, arguing that distribution and the institutions of employment regulation remain crucial to solving the UK’s twin productivity problems. Finally, Alex Wood and Barry Colfer from the University of Oxford spoke about a paper they have co-authored on the evolution of workplace ‘rules’ that regulate the employment relationship.

The event was attended by a wide range of people from a variety of areas at the University and beyond, and post event conversation was lively and impassioned. Representatives from unions across different industries attended to celebrate the commencement of HeartUnions week, intended to educate and support unions nationwide.

The message taken away from the event was articulated perfectly by the closing of Paul Nowak’s speech: “everybody deserves a decent job and fair pay. Everybody deserves respect at work. Everybody believes in solidarity, that we are stronger together”.


Employee Relations publishes authoritative papers by world leading thinkers in HR, employment and industrial relations. This special issue is free for the first month. Download the special issue here.

The Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business within Birmingham Business School, is a challenge-centred, interdisciplinary research and engagement space exploring how businesses can be ‘rewired responsibly’ to inform, shape and energise the Responsible Business Revolution and to underpin Lloyds Banking Group’s pioneering initiative, ‘Helping Britain Prosper.’ Find out more about the Centre on their website.