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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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These days, he says, “journalists don’t see themselves as union people. The only difference is the tools we use in the trade.” Reporters and editors are brought up in a culture that discourages entangling alliances – they’re supposed to be impartial, which leads some to decline even to vote — and they’re discouraged from joining anything.

It’s nearly as true for many musicians, says Thomson. “When musicians enter this world – as a rock band, hip-hop singer or electronica act – a larger structure like a union doesn’t seem to make sense if they are still booking their own shows,” she says. “For musicians it just doesn’t align with how they see themselves. ‘I don’t have a salaried job, how can I go on strike if it’s just me and my band?’ ”

Many of them eventually join a union, she says, and many musicians around Hollywood studios, Broadway stages and Nashville’s music factory are unionized, typically with the 90,000-member American Federation of Musicians. Even some of the rock bands come around. “It’s when people see a larger career arc, or if they ever play on live television — say, as a guest on a late night talk show — as the AFM and SAG-AFTRA are almost always the conduit for payments. Or when a Canadian artist needs a visa to perform in the United States. Until then, it might never cross their radar.”

Says Frank: “You’re talking about people who went to college; they’ve been brought up thinking that unions weren’t for them. This whole idea of the ‘free agent society’ has gone so far; I don’t know how you reverse that. And they didn’t just sell it to management – they sold it to workers. They think it’s cool to not have health insurance or benefits!”

The key work of this movement, “Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself,” was written by former Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink. “Democrats are as deep into it as Republicans are,” Frank says. “The Democrats are embarrassed by organized labor, especially when they think about their future. It’s professionals – that’s who they want.”

This isn’t just a class, or ideological, problem. Artists, musicians, writers – even some journalists – go through periods of developing their individual voices, years of what jazz musicians call “woodshedding.” This can take place in graduate school, or while bartending or driving a cab – Philip Glass and Steve Reich ran a furniture-moving company – but whatever the details, it tends to reinforce a sense of individualism. Whatever a person’s specific politics, the artist’s path often discourages a sense of collective unity.

“Collective bargaining requires an obedient rank-and-file,” Gioia says. “But is there a profession more resistant to this than art-making? I’d rather try to put the toothpaste back in the tube than attempt to get artists to march in lockstep.”

One of several groups trying to make this work is Freelancers Union, a decade-old Brooklyn-based nonprofit that calls itself a “federation of the unaffiliated” for the nearly one-third of the workforce that works independent of a steady employer. But it’s not just graphic designers working from home in their pajamas: Founder Sara Horowitz was spurred to do something for freelancers when she took a law firm job and saw she was classified as an independent contractor, with no health insurance or retirement benefits. In 2008, she started the for-profit Freelancers Insurance Co., and in the fall opened the Freelancers Medical Center in Brooklyn. The group hopes to offer unemployment insurance as well. But some freelancers outside New York complain that they’d love to join the group, but wish it offered medical insurance west of the Hudson. (The group offers dental, 401K and disability nationally.)

 
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