One question kept coming from the floor at the Labour Party’s Future of Work Conference in Auckland last week.

It was from unionists in the audience to whoever the previous speaker had been and it went something like this:  “You’ve outlined a future of highly individualised work, with people in part-time, low-paid jobs, taking whatever they can get in auctions for their skills on a part-time, freelance basis.  How can that sit with our need to organise collectively?”

There seemed to be genuine puzzlement at predictions from the keynote speakers of an atomized free-for-all as the total number of ‘jobs’ reduced sharply, leaving people competing for parts of the remaining roles.  

The answers varied.  Keynote speaker Professor Guy Standing, from the University of London, said even though he was a lifelong trade union supporter, the future for labour unions as they now operate appeared dim.  He said the mention of those words sent young, at-risk, people worldwide heading for the exit doors and out to the bar, at his meetings on the future of work.

Dr Jan Owen, of the Foundation for Young Australians, who told the conference her countrymen and women at age 15 could expect to have 17 jobs in five different industries in their lifetimes, was more hopeful.  She believed within the fragmented work environment of the future, there would “be a move to collective or networked entrepreneurialism”.

But still the same question arose.  Wither collectivism? Wither unions?

Labour is grappling with a phenomenon some have dismissed as the ‘next big tech fear’ – but it is clearly going to change employment and how society handles structural underemployment. 

The list of keynote speakers and panellists at the meeting over two days almost seemed designed to help re-educate the union base, and the caucus attendees, to the scale of change that is coming.

“This will help educate a future cabinet,” one influential party member said on the sidelines.

If you are the party of labour, and labour is in some senses dissolving due to globalisation removing roles from your jurisdiction, and robots, artificial intelligence and mechanisation eliminating tasks previously performed by your members, what is your role for workers?

Advertisment

 It is not just at the blue-collar level.  One speaker, Goran Roos, a Swedish-born Australian innovation expert, said manufacturing would not be hit as hard as people think.  Products still needed to be produced, and while production might shift around geographic markets, the total amount demanded would remain the same. 

He pointed to support roles in professional firms, such as paralegals for a law firm, as at risk. Software which could search 30 million pages in a matter of minutes would remove the need for legal researchers and their weeks of work ahead of a trial. Conversely, the need for the barrister in court would remain – and his or her value enhanced by being able to deal with more cases more quickly.

Productivity improvements like that would change workplaces well beyond the menial or the assembly line.

The Labour Party’s conference succeeded in focusing the 250 attendees’ minds on the scale and speed of change, and the benefits of their movement addressing it early.  Standing, former Clinton Labour Secretary Robert Reich and Owen helped underline the need for big policy changes. 

“The most open Labour Party meeting, with all views able to be aired, since the days of Jim Anderton [as president]” said one attendee.

Numerous MPs led panels and question sessions.  Almost without exception, those on display showed a capability and agility of thinking from which leader Andrew Little should have taken encouragement.

The “10 Big Ideas” document issued to launch the meeting was fine enough, but interim and unconvincing.

And it will not be easy politics, though, as the Future of Work Commission works through to what MC Jacinda Ardern, said would be a full report in November which would include “direction AND detail”.

There was occasional pushback from people unused to hearing so much talk about a future of what one called ‘productive economic units’. Jane Bryson, a panellist from Victoria University, made a cry from the heart for the debate to be about ‘people as members of communities’.

“How do we organise political, economic and legal systems to achieve that? I don’t want to offend Andrew Little at all but that’s the sort of discussion that should underpin government policies.”

It got the most sustained applause of Day Two, panel chair and MP Ian Lees-Galloway observing: “Jane, I think you have the audience on your side.”

CTU “Stand-up” campaigner Asher Goldman wanted the Future of Work re-phrased to the “Purpose of Work”.  “We do not want a system where we undercut each other for piecemeal scraps.”  He derided the term ‘flexibility’, much quoted at the conference. “For young people, ‘flexibility’ is a euphemism for ‘take it or don’t come back’”.

Discussions were raw and uncomfortable at times.  Bryson was “95% excited and energised” at the challenge but “5% Why not just drop out and go to Golden Bay and be self-sustaining?’

Not an option for Little, Grant Robertson and a party which has taken on a big policy problem with boldness.  Boldness  which does not assume they have all the answers.

Ardern closed proceedings upbeat. “Wherever there’s  fear, there is an equal number of opportunities.”