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Building our movement to address the challenges of AI and failing high streets

Last year an estimated 120,000 retail workers lost their jobs and nearly 10,000 shops closed — Usdaw regional secretary MIKE WALKER calls for action to protect workers in the rapidly changing retail sector

THE Welsh trade union movement meets in Llandudno this week, hopefully on the verge of a new Labour government and an end to 14 years of Tory chaos and austerity, along with appalling attacks on workers’ rights and their trade unions.
 
We are not complacent, and Usdaw is making every effort to support Labour’s election campaign so that we can secure a new government and transform workers’ lives.
 
So, at the Wales TUC, the Usdaw delegation is very much focused on the future, looking at building our movement in Wales, addressing the challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) and a recovery for our retail industry.
 
Organising the workplace has always been a core strength of our movement, but in recent years this strength has come under increasing pressure. This not only impacts our bargaining strength, but also our ability to make a difference to members’ lives on a day-to-day basis.
 
We know from experience that achieving an organised union movement does not happen by chance, but is something that takes a lot of planning and hard work. We are calling for the development of a national strategy for increasing union membership across Wales, with a key focus on the private sector.
 
The advance of AI and technology in the workplace is one of many reasons why we need to strengthen our movement and ensure more workers have the protection of trade union representation. Technology has always brought changes to the world of work, but the scale and pace of that change over the last few years is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
 
As the use of technology increases, it seems the protections offered for workers are being left behind. So, to truly protect our members from the risks of increased AI and technology in the workplace, we need to ensure there is a proper legal framework that focuses on the protection of workers’ rights.
 
This would include giving workers the right to a human connection and ensuring that employers consult with the workforce on the introduction of technology. This simply means workers have a voice when new technologies are being introduced.
 
AI and the cost-of-living crisis are adding to the challenges already facing retail workers and struggling high streets over the past decade.

Last year an estimated 120,000 retail workers lost their jobs, along with nearly 10,000 store closures. If we saw job losses on this scale in another sector it would be headline news, but all too often retail workers and their jobs are seen as simply disposable.
 
We need to tackle the perception that retail jobs aren’t proper jobs. Retail is one of the largest private-sector employers in Wales, employing nearly 140,000 people. The sector is also a key part of our nation’s economy, but is being held back.

It is clear we need a new economic framework, starting with fundamental reform of business rates to reduce the burden on retailers and to help level the playing field with online.
 
We need action on these issues now. Meaningful action that drives growth and investment, delivers decent pay and secure work, prioritising skills and training. This will help prepare the sector and its workers for current and future challenges and ensure that retail jobs are better jobs.
 
Labour’s New Deal for Working People and its high-streets plan will deliver much of the change we are seeking. Their policies and ideas show that they are the only party that can achieve our members’ aspirations. We need a general election now.

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