The Royal Academy of Art recently debated whether artists should unionise on their website (here). They asked artist Bob and Roberta Smith to argue for unionising and artist David Mach to argue against.
This is Artists’ Union England’s response to some of the points made:
‘When explaining Artists’ Union England, we often meet the arguments that artists are individuals, that they need to be flexible, that tough times lead to renewal and ingenuity. That is all very well if you are amongst those lucky enough to be consistently paid for your work (in which case, you are statistically likely to be a male artist), or employed in a related job such as lecturing at a university. But the art world is much wider than that. We are continually told that the ‘creative industries’ are an important part of our economy – if this is true (and we believe it is), then those industries cannot be built upon an exploited underclass of ‘creatives’.
People organise themselves collectively in the form of a union for one main reason: to combat exploitation. Artists’ Union England exists to allow artists to organise as workers and, amongst other things, prevent the arts becoming the reserve of those who do not need to receive a reasonable wage for their work. We do not dictate our members’ politics, nor their fees and prices. Being in a trade union means you don’t have to be in the vulnerable position of negotiating every single time you are employed by someone or an organisation. Why has Equity got 40,000 members, Musicians Union 30,000 members, BECTU 40,000 members, NUJ over 30,000 members? Because they represent their members collectively and fight for them to have decent pay and conditions.
If you are in the very lucky position of not feeling exploited as an artist, then you probably don’t feel the need to be in a trade union. However, our last member’s survey and regular ‘a-n’ research prove that most artists are the ‘working poor’. Without collective representation you can feel intimidated to take every single bit of work that comes your way, however badly paid, or even not paid at all, in case you are never asked again – the art world is notoriously closed and opaque. It is also regretfully far behind the other cultural industries regarding equal opportunity and discriminatory practices, with regard to gender, age, disability, race and class; many of the cultural unions are trying to address these constructively.
A collective voice gives hope so as to raise the bar for all artists, and all workers. When that contract/verbal agreement doesn’t get honoured, if you are a member of a trade union for artists, then there might just be a chance of some recourse and fair play at last. We have already helped members get the pay that was owed to them that would have been reneged on had they not been a member of AUE. If it wasn’t for trade unions we wouldn’t have weekends, contracts and maternity leave. The precarious and insecure nature of the lives of artists enables exploitation to flourish and Artists Union England was set up to begin to tackle just some of these huge injustices and issues. We’re small and developing, but we are democratic and accountable to our members.
All the executive are volunteers and have had to learn how to set up a union, but we feel that in this time of austerity and a cruel and unjust benefit system, that we need to begin the process of fighting back collectively. ‘United we Bargain, Divided we Beg’!’
AUE, June 2017