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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.

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But the good times didn’t last. When private-equity mogul Sam Zell leveraged a buyout of the Tribune Corp. – owner of the Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and other papers – and  drove the company into bankruptcy, waves of bloodshed for the newsrooms began. In the summer of 2008, something like 300 reporters and editors at the Times alone lost their jobs. Martelle was one of them. The next batch of firings came in October, and there was still no union to make the process more humane: Staffers were told they had until 5 p.m. to clean out their desks, and security was standing by for anyone who dawdled. (By contrast, the Tribune executive who steered the doomed sale to Zell, Dennis FitzSimons, walked away with a golden parachute in excess of $40 million.)

“In a lot of ways, the newspaper industry went along thinking it would be rich and fat forever,” says Martelle, who last year published the book  “Detroit: A Biography.” “And the journalists were in the same situation. So when the Tribune Corp. blew up, it was too late to organize. People get motivated to join unions because they are frustrated or scared. And 10 years ago, no one was frustrated or scared.”

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Trade unions and artists’ guilds – various bodies in which creative types collaborate politically — date back at least as far as the first stirrings of the market economy. Masons lodges, common in the Middle Ages, operated like a cross between movie studios and architecture firms. As early capitalism became a force nearly as important to artists as the church, artisans and artists joined guilds, which were less hierarchical than the lodges, and worked in some ways like contemporary unions. They asserted rules for training, apprenticeship and journeymen, not radically different from a blacksmiths’ or saddlers’ guild.

“Guilds in the Middle Ages arose whenever an occupational group felt its economic existence threatened by an influx of competition from without,” historian Arnold Hauser wrote in his definitive The Social History of Art. “The object of the organization was to exclude or at least restrict competition.” These guilds could be illiberal in some ways, but they also “marked a decided step forward in the artist’s freedom.”

This conflict between those inside and outside the guild exerted itself frequently in these years: Itinerant entertainers like jongleurs and wandering minstrels often enraged guild groups like watchmen or town musicians, who typically held a monopoly on performing at weddings and funerals, and were beaten back by established players. Stage actors experienced similar conflicts: Some were connected to a local guild, others wandered from inn to inn to perform for a passed hat, while some, as permanent theaters began to be established in Shakespeare’s time, joined standing companies and resented those who didn’t.

Guilds were hardly perfect – the Meistersingers were almost comically Teutonic in their earnest love of musical rules, and guild traditionalism sometimes put them behind artistic developments. But they were important to keep amateurs from stealing material – songs, for instance — in these days before copyright or contemporary notions of intellectual property. The nature of art means that these guilds did not function as smoothly as, say, blacksmith guilds. “There never was as period in their history,” British music historian Henry Raynor wrote, “when the town musicians were not engaged in a bitter struggle to preserve their monopoly.”

When the culture of the Renaissance told artists that they were individuals — even, in some cases, geniuses – that their talent was inborn, and that their role was to liberate the human spirit, many painters, sculptors and others decided they did not need some musty old medieval guild, with its years of training and numerous restrictions. But because artists have little power and influence in isolation, they found themselves soon migrating into academies of art that were more conservative and hidebound than the guilds. In 17th century Holland, similarly, a formidable group of painters emerged – Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer among them – but because artists fell on the wrong side of the supply/demand curve, and there was no guild to protect them, even the best artists struggled, some selling tulips to pay the rent, some just going broke.

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