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Can Unions Save the Arts and Other 'Creative' Professions?

Today, musicians work without record labels, journalists work as freelancers and book publishing is collapsing. Unions might take some risk and sting out of the creative destruction.

Photo Credit: © Glynnis Jones /


This article originally appeared on Salon.


Being a musician is a good job, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to go broke doing it. –David Byrne

They’re just for hard hats. They peaked around the time Elvis was getting big. They killed Detroit. They’ve got nothing to do with you or me. They’re a special interest – and they hate our freedom.

That’s the kind of noise you pick up in 21st century America – in politics and popular culture alike – when you tune your station to the issue of trade unions. Union membership, and ensuing muscle, have been in  steep decline in both the public and private sectors. Just look at  Wisconsin’s “right to work” push, the anti-teachers union “reform” movement, corporate union-busting, P.R. “messaging” firms hired by management to smear striking workers, hostility from the Republican right and indifference from a Democratic Party that’s reoriented itself around professionals and Silicon Valley.

Also in decline: America’s creative class — artists, writers, musicians, architects, those part of the media, the fine arts, publishing, TV and other fields — faced with an unstable landscape marked by technological shifts, a corporate culture of downsizing, and high unemployment.

So is it time for artists to strap on a hard hat? Maybe unions or artists’ guilds can serve and protect an embattled creative class. With musicians typically operating without record labels, journalists increasingly working as freelancers as newspapers shed staff, and book publishing beginning what looks like a period of compression, unions might take some of the risk and sting out of our current state of creative destruction.

“Musicians are trying to negotiate this changing landscape,” says Kristin Thomson, once a guitarist for the band Tsunami and an owner of indie label Simple Machines, now a director of the  Future of Music Coalition. Many musicians ask the group how to deal with today’s complicated mix of outlets and platforms, or what to expect from label support. “Others saw their mechanical royalties falling off a cliff. There are revenue steams out there, but they’re all changing so fast. This is a difficult time for artists trying to understand it all. And there’s a lot more competition because the barriers to entry are a lot lower.”

To their partisans, of course, unions don’t just help the workers at a few companies; they can have a transformational effect on society as a whole. Supporters credit them with the 40-hour work week, the weekend, fair wages, safe working conditions, overtime pay – much of the edifice that build the American middle class in the mid-20th-century. Unions often set wage standards across a field, even for people who don’t belong to them; uncounted artists, writers and musicians can pursue their craft because their spouses have union-protected jobs, like public school teachers.

“And it’s because of the decline of labor that these things are going away,” says Thomas Frank, best known as the author of  What’s the Matter With Kansas? “If you’re worried about inequality in this country, which is just galloping along, the main cause – even bigger than the skewed tax code – is the decline of unions.”

The journalist and author Scott Martelle has seen the issue from several angles. While working at the Detroit News, a Gannett paper, he served as a union activist during the 1995 strike, and rather than cross a picket line to work, left for the Los Angeles Times two years later. The locally owned Times, by contrast, still retained a whiff of old-school corporate benevolence: for some of that decade, the paper had employed a staff doctor on call for the newsroom, and sometimes sent writers on first-class flights to cover stories. We never formed a union, its staffers sometimes told each other, because they treated us well. (Disclosure: Martelle was a colleague of mine at the Times.)

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