People power: The impact and issues associated with Union influence on AI adoption

People power: The impact and issues associated with Union influence on AI adoption 

Rachel White, Lecturer of Computer Science 

Department of Digital Technologies, University of Winchester 

Labour Law and Economics Stream 

Last year, the Culinary Union in Las Vegas threatened strike action and renegotiated staff contracts after an ‘Automated restaurant’ called the Tipsy Robot opened in the City (Hernandez, 2018). The new contract added clauses citing advanced notification of new technology implementations, free re-training, and retention bonuses for staff laid off due to new technologies (Culinary Workers Union, 2019). This case highlights the potential complication that industry may encounter as we move further forward with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Regardless of the actual threat due to Automation, the perceived threat due to a ‘novelty’ bar was enough to cause the workers unions to threaten strike, and for large Casinos to renegotiate contracts to ensure smooth running. 

This paper will consider: how Union concerns can impact system implementation; the minefield faced both pre-implementation and during; and what industry need to consider moving forward in our ever more connected world. Through a systematic literature review, this paper will examine the current issues and concerns raised both through government commissions and academia. 

There is a dearth of literature around the area of Union involvement in system implementation. This could be due to a steady decline in Unionised staff in some industries, and thus a decline of the union voice as predicted by Link & Siegel (2002). However, it could also be that AI presents the first leap in many years that could impact on industries that have otherwise avoided the consequences of technological advancement. A recent article on the intended job losses within the U.S. banking industry quoted Mike Mayo of saying ‘Goliath is Winning’ (Merchant, 2019), a statement that could become a clarion call to many in ‘White Collar’ jobs who up until now may have felt relatively secure in the race for automation (HoL, 2018) 

Implementing new Enterprise solutions in a business has long been acknowledged as a challenge for management and IT personnel (Lin et al, 2018). Not only do complex systems require high levels of resourcing, planning, and testing, but the impact on users can be significant both in terms of adjustment of job roles and changes to processes (Bala & Venkatesh, 2013; Chaudhry, 2018; Frey & Osborne, 2013; Mahmud et al, 2017). The advent of AI has arguably added a new complexity to this puzzle. 

This is not the first time a technological leap has added complexity to business processes. History is littered with concerns over technological advancements, from the Luddite rebellion to the early development of TCP/IP. User perception and response to system changes can have a major impact on the success of an implementation project (Bala & Venkatesh, 2013). It will come as no surprise that the implementation itself can cause major concerns for users. Chaudry proposes there are three main aspects that need to be met to manage employee attitude towards implementation: 

Readiness, Openness, and Commitment (Chaudry, 2018). Interestingly, these have also been highlighted as key themes in the recent whitepapers by the House of Lords Committee (2018) and the EU Commission (2019), with both groups pressing the need for transparency and communication of these systems. Hall and Pesenti (2018) go as far as stating that a publicly facing group from industry should be created to engender trust and openness as businesses start to consider implementation. Whether a general transparency of these systems would allay concern would need to be monitored and reviewed if implemented. 

The workers of the Culinary Union staff are lucky; 60,000 workers are represented by the Union (Culinary Workers Union, 2019) giving them a strong voice to argue in their own defence against their companies. Union power is not an unfamiliar concept, with many examples of strikes in recent years. However, examples of the power held by Unions over the implementation of technology can be seen as far back as the 16th Century. William Lee created a knitting machine which was declined a patent by Queen Elizabeth I in 1589, due to concerns about the impact on the Hosiers’ Guild and the artisan skills of its members. The response from the Guild was such that Lee had to leave Britain (Frey & Osborne, 2013). 

The concern to be raised here is, what of the staff who aren’t represented by unions? There are plenty of industries both in Britain and further afield who never have, or no longer have a union to represent them. How do we as the technologists, managers, and business owners work with staff who are responding negatively to potential implementations but have very little voice to represent themselves. While we argue either way about the threat to staff of automation, we spend very little time considering how to manage the Human Resources situation that these implementations can potentially trigger. The challenges we will face are not only the technical and infrastructure issues of the past, they are also the potential disruption caused by staff, the negative press and the potential unionised reactions that can cause far more disruption than a day’s downtime for a server switchover ever could. 

Further research needs to be undertaken into the perception by Staff, both union and independent, of AI implementation, and to analyse their feelings, concerns and the potential hurdles that certain industries will find as we enter a new technological age against potentially traditionalist attitudes. 


Bala, H. & Venkatesh, V. (2013) Changes in Employees’ Job Characteristics During an Enterprise System Implementation: A Latent Growth Modelling Perspective. MIS Quarterly 37,(4),1113-1140 

Chaudhry, S. (2018) Managing Employee Attitude for a Successful Information System Implementation: A Change Management Perspective. Journal of International Technology and Information Management. 27, (1), 58-90 

Culinary Workers Union: Local 226 (2019) Contract Language: Automation & Technology. Available at: [Accessed 13 September 2019] 

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Frey, C.B. & Osborne, M. (2013) The Future of Employment. Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment 

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Hernandez, D. (2018) Las Vegas casino workers prep for strike over automation: ‘Robots can’t beat us’. The Guardian. Available at: workers-strike-automation-casinos [Accessed 13 September 2019] 

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Link, A.N. & Siegel, D.S. (2002) Unions and technology adoption: A qualitative analysis of the use of real-time control systems in U.S. Coal firms. Journal of Labour Research. 23, (4), 615-630 

Merchant, B. (2019) ‘Goliath is Winning’: The Biggest U.S. Banks are Set to Automate Away 200,000 jobs. Gizmodo. Available at: to-a-1838740347 [Accessed 5 October 2019] 

Mahmud, I., Ramaya, T. & Kurnia, S. (2017) To Use or not to Use: Modelling end user grumbling as user resistance in pre-implementation stage of enterprise resource planning system. Information Systems. 69, 164-179