The Covid Crisis Has Revived Arts Trade Unionism

Across the creative industries, already precarious workers have been left in limbo by government and institutional inaction during this crisis – but the unions that fight for them are adapting quickly.

For many workers in the UK, the multiple crises of 2020 could not have hit at a worse time. Although the national level of trade union membership has risen modestly to 6.44 million workers since its record low of 6.23 million in 2016, organised labour in this country remains historically weak (the record high, in 1979, was over 13 million). The coronavirus crisis and the ensuing economic collapse has threatened working-class people more than anyone else, and BAME workers in particular, due to systemic inequalities and the demographic distribution of frontline work. Yet the organisational structures that exist to protect workers have rarely had less power to do so.

For workers in the arts sector, hardly a financially secure or equitable field prior to the pandemic, these problems are acute. ‘Certain organisations have already taken this opportunity to cut jobs – and [even then] they won’t survive a second spike, they’ll go into administration,’ says Gareth Spencer, co-president of the Public and Commercial Services Union Culture Group, which represents workers in civil service and government positions within cultural institutions including the Tate galleries, the Southbank Centre and the British Library.

‘The Tate is split into a group employed by the gallery, and one by its commercial arm,’ adds Spencer. ‘This is something we’ve seen a lot in the past 10-15 years, institutions setting up a commercial wing and employing people on worse pay and conditions.’ In the case of Tate Enterprises, 200 jobs have been put at risk of redundancy following the fallout from Covid-19; the victims of the ‘restructuring’ within this commercial arm of the art institution have been workers in the galleries’ retail, publishing and catering services. On 4th August, PCS members voted to take strike action against this.

The Southbank Centre, another institution which employs PCS Culture Group members, has also announced plans for redundancies and controversial restructuring, which the union is continuing to organise against. Meanwhile, the institution’s CEO, Elaine Bedell, continues to earn a salary of nearly £200,000, even with a 20% pay cut.

This prioritisation of a few high-earning management positions over far greater numbers of lower-paid workers is reflected at the Tate. ‘Our unanswered question [is] why the ‘bailout’ [£7m of the £1.57bn arts fund announced by culture secretary Oliver Dowden in July] is seemingly being used to backfill losses of income to restore Tate’s reserves and to maintain the pay of highest earners and swollen levels of middle management’, says Jack Jeans, PCS Tate United Branch Secretary, as opposed to those ‘who not only provide all the care and engagement with the public, generate the profits, perform the emotional labour, clean the galleries, and ensure the public are safe and protected whilst still living with Covid.’

For Horace Trubridge, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, this disconnect between the scale of the government’s financial intervention and its long-term impact on jobs in the creative industries betrays the treasury’s fundamental lack of understanding of the sector.

‘They don’t understand how the profession works, they think that by propping up creators and creatives they’ve done all they need to do, but don’t realise that you need a workforce to deliver the wonderful things that creators make,’ he says. ‘40% of our members couldn’t qualify for job retention or self-employed support, and could only get Universal Credit. The culture fund is going to be fine for propping up institutions and organisations and making sure venues can manage while shut. But none of that money is aimed at creating work so the workforce is neglected—it’s just being used to mothball venues. We’ve been arguing for some time that some of that money should be used to subsidise socially-distanced live performances—as has happened elsewhere in Europe—so that [those events] can break even and create work for the sector, but the treasury are not interested.’

He’s particularly worried about people leaving the music industry in search of better pay and job security – as he calls it, ‘a talent drain’. ‘We’re losing members because people are literally being forced out of the profession. And these aren’t our members, but for instance sound and lighting engineers – you need hundreds of them to put on a festival, and these are very skilled people in IT and tech, and there are many very buoyant tech companies that’ve grown exponentially during lockdown and are very attractive to go and work in, without anything like the precarity of the music industry. People with those easily transferable skills will be leaving the industry.’

This seems to be a recurring theme: as substantial as many of the government’s financial interventions have been during recent months, without a nuanced understanding of the industries they’re attempting to keep afloat, they miss the mark, leaving large numbers of workers in limbo. Many in the creative industries piece together a living from a range of sources, and if they do not earn over 50% of their income from self-employment or have not been furloughed by other employers, they’ve had zero support beyond Universal Credit (up to £409.89 per month if you’re 25 or over).

One creative sector that has actually fared relatively well over the past few months – in financial terms at least – is the video game industry. Declan Peach is vice-chair of the Game Workers Unite branch of the IWGB (Independent Workers of Great Britain), and he’s keen to emphasise that even in their currently thriving industry, there remain challenges ahead as the UK’s economic situation continues to deteriorate. ‘We’ve been really lucky that furloughs and lockdowns have really benefited the games industry,’ he says. ‘At the moment we’re trying to train our members to deal with redundancies – we know a lot of games companies have been doing better rather than worse, but a lot of them are doing the old tactic of using the threat of a looming recession to shave off the fat of the employees they don’t like.’

Yet the conditions that have been forced upon so many people across the country—not least a massive rise in the number of people working from home—have opened up certain new potentialities as the economic crisis gathers pace.

‘When everyone started moving to remote work, we hit the ground running, as we were already organised like that – as a committee of people who live all over the country,’ says Peach. ‘In terms of our members, the main thing for us that working from home will be the new norm, and we’ll have a lot more leverage against companies when they try and make people go back into work when it’s advantageous for the worker not to – we now have a lot of proof that the companies won’t lose efficiency through that. That puts a lot of power into the workers’ hands that they might not realise; in that sense it also has issues in that they’re not interacting in person and it makes it harder to organise, but it’s also going to be easier to organise remotely as now so many more people are used to working remotely.’ As traditional workplaces continue to be reshaped in the service of precarious employment and social distancing measures, the crash course in remote work and organisation that the pandemic has necessitated could prove very valuable indeed.

Clearly, though, this alone will not save the many livelihoods that are currently under imminent threat. As Henry Chango Lopez, president of the IWGB, says, ‘the government seems to be asleep at the wheel, ignoring all the signs that we are heading towards a major humanitarian crisis. The job retention and self-employed income support schemes should be extended immediately, alongside a radical strengthening of the UK’s employment regulation and enforcement regime. Unless the government acts decisively to do so now we will be paying the price for decades to come.’

Of course, Covid-19 is hardly the only crisis the creative industries are dealing with at the moment. The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the desperate need for long-overdue reflection and structural change across the sector; bodies like the Musicians’ Union and UK Music are following a 12-step programme to redress internal imbalances. Trubridge says the MU are ‘monitoring employees, musicians who are being hired, making sure people of colour were being hired where they would’ve been previously. There were concerns around the virus and people of colour being more vulnerable, that employers would choose not to engage them as [they might perceive that there’d be] a greater risk.’

PCS members at the Tate have been organising in protest at the hypocrisy of the galleries’ ‘performative statements on anti-racism’. ‘We’ve raised numerous times with management the structurally racist aspect of outsourcing [as practised by the gallery] being one of the main reasons why the pandemic has disproportionately impacted BAME workers as recently concluded in the Runnymede Trust report,’ says Jeans.

Finally, Trubridge is also keen to make sure the challenges posed by Brexit are not overlooked: ‘If we bounce out of the EU with no deal at the end of the year, my members are going to have huge problems getting work visas to be able to tour in Europe. Of course, it’s all wrapped up in immigration issues – which the government is extremely acute on.’

Organised labour in the UK may be historically weak in many ways, but in the face of the unprecedented challenges of this year, new and innovative approaches to trade unionism will be essential. In industries like the arts, whose nuances are often entirely overlooked not just by outsiders, but those with the most power in the sector, such projects can only be built from the bottom up.