By Mary Ellen Dowd
A trade union can be defined as a collective of workers, banding together to improve conditions and pay, address safety concerns, discrimination or inequalities, provide work-related services and give voice to workers in an industry or work place. Unions have protected workers from unfair treatment and harsh conditions since the late 1700s. What many do not realise is that similar unions have existed for artists since the 12th century, making creatives the pioneers for such protections.
What were called “craft guilds” came to life in medieval France and Italy following the 12th century. Members were expected to contribute financially to their guild in order to reap benefits like mutual aid, production standards, decreased competition and political influence. According to WorldHistory.org, “ Cities like Milan, Florence and Toulouse had such guilds for food producers and leather workers. Some of the earliest craft guilds in England were guilds of weavers, especially in London and Oxford. Other craft guilds eventually included associations of cutlers (makers of cutlery), haberdashers (dealers in goods needed for sewing and weaving), dyers, bakers, saddlers, masons, specialists in metal goods such as blacksmiths, armourers, locksmiths and jewellers, and many others covering all aspects of daily life”.
The influence of these early guilds remains today in the form of creative unions. Like any other trade union, creative unions exist to protect the interests of their workers. These unions that exist for workers like freelance writers, actors and musicians, have accumulated big legislative wins throughout history.
For example, according to Union Track, the National Writers Union has acquired settlements that netted $160,000 in back pay for 80 writers. This is just one example of the protection they have offered creative workers. Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has done similar things for actors. An example of this is the 2019 contract between the Actors’ Equity Association and off-Broadway producers which gives salary increases to many actors and stage managers.
Union Track states, “The contract calls for wage increases of 32 to 81 percent over the life of the contract, and covers both commercial off-Broadway theatres and not-for-profits. Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle called it a “historic” contract that allows actors and stage managers to do what they love while supporting themselves financially.”
In a similar sense, the American Federation of Musicians has legally protected its members since its conception in 1896. This organisation has acquired wins like pay increases for the Philadelphia Orchestra, signing a contract with the production company Confidential Music that streamlines compensation for musicians, and signing another agreement with production company Hollywood Scoring that makes demo acquisition through the internet more efficient.
Much like their medieval predecessors, contemporary unions come at a fee for members. This cost dissuades some artists from joining. For example, an article by etui.org tells the perspective of Alice Roots, a London-based performer with the group “Figs and Wigs”, who has not been able to afford membership fees to the Artists’ Union England (AUE) for years.
The article states, “for many freelance artists, especially the younger and less established who put all their energy and resources into their creative work, union engagement and its benefits are not always so apparent… Artists are more often than not working and living on a shoestring budget”.
Still, protections such as these are incredibly necessary in creative industries where workers are often overworked and underappreciated. Benjamin Clark writes for Kill Your Darlings, “As regressive legislation and economic changes have gradually suppressed [creative] workers’ power to negotiate better pay and conditions, the only people who can consistently survive in the arts are the relatively privileged”. Although costs of unions may be an obstacle for some creatives, unions continue to accumulate wins and set standards for these industries as a whole. They serve to offset the existing issue of economic inequality within the industry and beyond.
While the importance of unionisation and collective bargaining is undeniable, still many workers are prevented from doing so by their employers. In theory, American workers’ right to collective bargaining is granted under the National Labor Relations Act, but still many employers have found ways to discourage their workers from voting to unionise.
According to a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, some common tactics include forcing employees to attend anti-union meetings, presence of anti-union billing in offices and encouraging managers to threaten the jobs of employees who vote to unionise. The study also highlights a $340 million dollar industry dedicated to “union avoidance” consultancy, utilised among top American corporations.
Without the support of creative unions, accessibility to success in creative industries is narrowed to only the most privileged. In allowing the arts to be warded only to the most wealthy, the public would not only be starving art of the diversity that makes it what it is, but also exacerbating the already existing issue of economic inequality. For these reasons and so many others, creative unions serve a distinctly important role in our society.
“In a highly feminised industry, where editors’ passion for their work and doomsaying about the industry’s health have too often been weaponised by employers to suppress wages and conditions, book publishers pooled their labour power and negotiated a fairer deal”, writes Clark. As book editor and MEAA delegate Bethany Patch wrote in the Guardian, “unionising has given us a voice in decisions that affect us daily – an opportunity for our rights and interests to be truly represented and bargained for collectively”.
To join your local union, first locate the union through an internet search or speaking with other professionals in your community. Then, get in touch with an organiser and inquire how you might join.