TRADE unions in Scotland have been urged to be more experimental in their approach to data and digitisation in the ever-changing workplace.

The message came from Mathia Askholm, from the Danish union HK Lab – the country’s biggest union for salaried employees – at a Scottish TUC conference in Glasgow.

Behind Closed Circuits, the first event of its type in the UK, examined how unions are responding to changing workplace technologies, which is partly responsible for the decline in membership in Scotland – down from 766,000 in 1995 to 629,000 in 2017.

Askholm, whose union boasts 275,000 members, told The National: “Perhaps the main message is less thinking and analysis and more trying out, doing different experiments.

“New technologies and digitalisation will greatly affect both society and the labour market and it’s good to try to understand it, but we can’t calculate what the future will be. For us to be able to be relevant and up-to-date in the future, we need to start trying to experiment with new technologies ourselves.”

He said using a variety of methods had accrued benefits for his own union, which faced the same problems as other countries – new jobs in new sectors such as the gig economy, which were not unionised.

“We also have a lot of new companies with new business models, but what we’ve found through HK Lab is a lot of these young Danish start-ups are not ‘evil’ from the get-go.

“All the new start-ups, for instance measuring working lives, stress levels and things like that, are usually young people starting a company

because they have a good idea.

“What they build will have consequences in terms of labour relationships and so on, but they don’t know about that and they want to be ‘good’.

“So it’s important to engage with those companies and try to be forthcoming early on to give them the knowledge they need ... to say to them perhaps when you build an app, instead of finding the union to be not welcoming, we try to enter into a dialogue with them.”

Askholm said adapting to automation and changing work patterns was an ongoing process, but different unions and managements approach them in different ways. However, the two could work together, because they had some of the same interests.

In the late 1980s, Rodney Bickerstaffe, who led the public service union Nupe, was planning for the future with discussions about new “superunions” being formed after traditional bodies were decimated by years of Thatcherism.

Unison was created from a merger between Nupe, Nalgo and Cohse and is now Britain’s biggest public sector union with more than 1.3 million members – 150,000 in Scotland.

Its regional manager, Peter Hunter, said it had survived and prospered through the challenges it had faced and was not looking at the new digital economy.

“Our size and power leave us as well placed as we possibly could be to deal with that,” he said.

Edinburgh City Council was probably the first public body in Scotland to push the wholesale privatisation and automation of revenues, benefits, finance – that put Unison head-to-head with 55 major private sector multinationals and we won that battle.

“There is still no major private sector capitalist foothold in the public sector in Scotland.

He added: “The digital solutions to public service reform in Scotland will be public sector-based solutions.”