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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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Romanticism in the 19th century doubled down on the cult of individualism: An artist or poet was a supernatural creature destined to soar about the dull crowd. As industry came into Britain and New England, creating inhumane working conditions and belching smoke into the skies, only the most political of artists saw anything in common with the masses filing into the sooty factory each morning. Unions started up in earnest about this time, and some guilds saw a revival. But by and large, artists were committed to an individualism either heroic (Beethoven, Wagner) or dejected/alcoholic/absinthe-sipping (Baudelaire, Poe).

The turn of the 20th century, flanked by the Progressive era, saw a growth of unions and successes such as child-labor laws. Perhaps more than any subgroup of the creative class, musicians – classical, Broadway and big-band artists especially – became unionized by the 20th century, generally with the American Federation of Musicians.

“The unionization of music in the United States has a mixed history,” says Ted Gioia, a music historian, jazz pianist and former corporate executive. “Many U.S. cities still had segregated musicians unions long after the Supreme Court said ‘separate but equal’ was wrong — in 1963 we still had 39 all-black locals in the AFM. James Petrillo, the head of the AFM, didn’t want to force the issue, and this one man had an enormous influence on what happened — or didn’t happen — in American music. Petrillo was also responsible for the musicians’ strike of 1942-1944, and though I’m sure he felt he had good reasons for calling a halt to recordings, many blamed the decline in the big bands to this decision. And even today, we face a gap in American music history.”

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – the songwriters’ union, dedicated to protecting and enforcing copyright – also made its share of mistakes. “When ASCAP launched a boycott of broadcasters in 1941,” Gioia says, “they opened up opportunities for its rival BMI, and eventually had to settle for lower rates from radio than what they started with. In this instance, the public was deprived of music and the composer ended up with a worse deal.”

Of course, the most consequential event in the recent history of unions has nothing to do with art or music. When Ronald Reagan – the only American president to come out of organized labor and simultaneously an avatar of “rugged individualism” –  fired 13,000 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, he helped erase unions from the American map. “The government had never done something like that, replacing striking workers,” says Frank, whose latest book is “Pity the Billionaire.” “It was a signal to striking workers, that it would side with management. It was the beginning of an offensive. For the strikes of the ’80s, over and over again, strikers just got replaced.”

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In the right circumstances, guilds could be a force for stability for artists and artisans during unstable times. But between unions and creative types sits a long-standing cultural barrier.

“A lot of white-collar employees don’t see themselves as workers,” says Martelle, who now belongs to the Authors Guild. “They see themselves as ‘partners’ or some other euphemism.” Newspaper journalism has blue-collar roots, and typically the production staff was committed to unionism. “But by the ‘70s and ‘80s, journalism was more about kids coming out of college, from the managerial class.”

He saw this in action while striking in Detroit: Roughly half the journalists went to work during the strike, while virtually none of the drivers, printers or production staff did. “There were a lot of liberal journalists who talked a good game. But when push came to shove, they crossed the picket line.”

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