Solidarity and Collective Action

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

How an Artists’ Union can assist us to collaborate effectively and work together to oppose division and competition.

 Jill Eastland, Cambridge and Eastern Region.

Conference paper for Cambridge Artists Network Conference Wednesday 27th February 2019.

The theme of this year’s CAN conference is working together, a topic that is cherished by trade union activists, who advocate collective action and solidarity.  Solidarity has a stronger meaning than collaboration.  It implies strength of unity and agreement and an ability to work together as equals to create positive change.  This has been a key factor of the trade union movement throughout its history.  Through collective action trade unions in Britain have won many rights that we take for granted including: introducing safer working practices, lessening discrimination and giving us a weekend.   Trade Unions are essentially opposed to division, competition and inequality, problems that have characterised the arts in the UK, with recent austerity cuts seeing artists competing for increasingly scarce resources.(1)


There is little doubt that pay and working conditions for artists are generally atrocious.  It was encouraging to see that CAN recently highlighted findings from ACE (Arts Council England) research which found that the average earnings for artists is £16,150 a year, but that these earnings are exceptionally precarious and two thirds come from employment other than art.  Furthermore this research is skewed because there are a few very high paid artists. (2)  In fact in 2017 it was reported that the vast majority of artists, a massive 82% earn less than £10,000 a year.  (3) The ACE research also found that there is a significant gender pay gap, lack of diversity and artists from poorer backgrounds tend to earn much less. (2.) It is worth bearing in mind though that the large pay rise that the ACE executive team have recently awarded themselves was not reported. (4)  Many artists also work in unsafe cold studios that wouldn’t be tolerated in other professions and the AUE (the Artists’ Union of England) is currently undertaking a survey on studio conditions. (5)  Recently there has been some government action to oppose workers being employed as unpaid interns after pressure from the opposition and discussion about how internships advantage people from more wealthy backgrounds and counter social mobility. (6) However, there is still a strong culture of unpaid voluntary work in the arts.  This was brought to the forefront of the media in 2017 when artists reacted on social media to an advertisement from a Sainsbury’s store, requesting “an ambitious artist to voluntarily refurbish our canteen.”   The advert went on to urge artists to embrace this opportunity of working for free. (7)  I am hesitant to use the C word, but capitalism and the free market clearly do not work in the interest of artists or cooperative practices.


All of this is why a union for artists is so important.  In 2016 The AUE gained certification as a union for artists.  The fact that this union is relatively new means that as a member, you can be directly involved in shaping its future.  The union is pioneering non-hierarchical ways of working collectively, such as engaging in consensus decision making meetings. By harnessing the solidarity of artists who are frequently working independently in disparate ways, AUE is able to hold national and local arts institutions and national and local government to account and call for clearly earmarked and sufficient funding and decent conditions for all artists; “As a trade union we aim to represent artists at strategic decision-making levels and positively influence the value and role artists play within society.” (8)  Other benefits of joining the union include:

  • Free legal advice through Morrish solicitors
  • £5m Public and Products liability insurance with specialist insurance brokers Hencilla Canworth
  • Free training and study opportunities through the TUC (Trades Union Congress) and GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions.)
  • Access to a shared knowledge base around artists’ issues, including: welfare benefits, studio rights, rates of pay and challenging discrimination. (8)


I would also emphasise the benefit of being able to contribute to campaigns to counter exploitative and discriminatory practices.  I have been supported to attend conferences and art events and to actively engage together with a network of other artists in the shaping of the union and national policy.  Some of the other campaigns that AUE are involved with are: campaigning against Universal Credit and supporting artists who are frequently in receipt of benefits, promoting and building BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) representation in the arts and protesting against the appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of ACE by Nicholas Serota.


Locally, the Cambridge and Eastern Region branch of AUE is the second to have been set up outside of London.  We work collectively and collaboratively, for example meeting at different arts organisations such as Cambridge Artworks and Cambridge Art Salon.  Working collectively has enabled us to support artists in Cambridge for example by representing an artist in a meeting with their employer and by supporting an artist to get legal support to deal with a problem concerning tax credits.  Currently we have been collaborating with Cambridge Commons and Pivotal.  The aim of Cambridge Commons is to highlight and combat inequality and we have been discussing how best artists can work with people in the community to promote equality and ensure adequate pay and working arrangements for the artists’ involved.


Finally, I would also like to add a note of caution about collaboration and partnership working.  As a result of our poor pay and insecure conditions, artists can easily be co-opted into unethical partnerships and ‘artwashing’, for example being used to give a new housing development a visual seal of approval.  Furthermore sometimes part private partnerships can be used as a way out of finding direct and accountable funding for artists.  With the solidarity that a union provides, we can begin to address these issues and build a future where art and artists are given the value in society that they deserve.

Jill Eastland – Artists’ Union of England – Cambridge and Eastern Region



  1. Rimmer, M (2018) The art of survival: community-based arts organisations in times of austerity. Community Development Journal
  2. Arts Council England (2018) Livelihoods of Visual Artists Report
  3. Independent Art Market (2017)



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