Labour market adjustment in the face of digitalisation: Union engagement in Sweden

Around the world, nervousness is building in expectation of increased challenges due to the technical advances we associate with automation, digitalisation and artificial intelligence. Ongoing structural changes indicate what may be about to follow; rapid vanishing of many professions, higher structural employment among semi-skilled workers, higher inequality following from polarisation between high-skill managers and workers within a limited set of “super-companies”*, and also capital owners, relative workers in general. The World Economic Forum predicted in a recent report that technology is about to replace 7 million jobs in developed countries, with only about 2 million being created.

These changes, often mixed up with globalisation, have social, economic and political implications. The systems of remuneration, social security, life-long learning and re-training, are poorly equipped in most countries to handle the new situation. Meanwhile, entrenched industrial relations and political hang-ups make it difficult for traditional policymaking to respond. Some countries, such as Canada and Finland experiment with “basic income” for citizens, whether they work or not. Orderly progress requires greater room for “bottom-up” responses, however, and particularly the engagement of unions and their members in working out new solutions.

In Sweden, the largest union, “Unionen”, actively engages in learning from concrete initiatives, including job platforms such as E-work. It commissioned the “International Organisation for Knowledge Economy and Enterprise Development” (IKED), an SI-DRIVE partner, to review links between labour market change and digitalisation. Building on the insights generated through SI-Drive, the project resulted in recommendations for actions by unions in cooperation with other stakeholders to open up for productive bottom-up initiatives at local level, in support of competence-development coupled with enhanced mobility and new value-enhancing initiatives. This includes new kinds of digital platforms for matchmaking in skill-formation and job allocation on terms that allow workers to enjoy a greater say and new sources of security.  From 2nd to 7th July 2017, in Almedalen, Visby, a main forum in Sweden for broad-based shaping and diffusion of new ideas in political and social life, Unionen addressed highlighted this agenda through organizing the panel “What happens when half of all jobs have disappeared?”. Also present in “Digidalen” and other initiatives, responses  to the associated issues stood out one of the main themes. See further:

*) Autor, D., Dorn, D., Katz, F., Patterson, C., Reenen, J. van,  (2017). The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms, Mimeo, MIT and NBER.