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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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“We know that a union would be a good thing,” Frank says, “but it’s very hard to start a union in a white-collar environment. When unions swept the country in the 1930s, very large workforces were concentrated in one place.” Creative professionals simply don’t have the numbers, and freelancers in the decentered age of the Internet are scattered geographically in a way that’s very different than the way legions of workers would get together under one roof every morning at a Manchester cotton mill or Detroit auto plant. “It’s harder for them to catch fire. You need unions, but you probably won’t get one.”

Gioia sees the current problem replaying the struggles of medieval guilds. “The biggest challenge to organizing creative labor is the large number of people willing to do the same work for free. This isn’t a problem when you are a coal miner or factory worker. But if you are a photographer, painter, musician, poet or some other creative talent, you soon figure out that the same gigs that you depend upon to pay your bills are someone else’s hobby. That other person might even pay for the opportunity to do what you are doing to make a living. This makes collective bargaining extremely difficult, because you have very little leverage in the negotiation.”

Some of the creative fields may figure a way out of the current mess; some won’t. It may have less to do with ingenuity and more to do with how fast the respective pies are shrinking. Despite some disruptions, and an output heavy on 14-year-old-boys’ testosterone fantasies, Hollywood studios continue to make enormous profits. Newspapers, magazines, book publishers and record labels, by and large, don’t.

Rich Yeselson, a D.C.-based writer who worked in the labor movement for two decades, considers unions the institutions that can best cut against income inequality and protect workers. “But a union can’t compensate for an industry whose business model is in crisis,” he says, “which is the real problem with the newspaper industry. If the business can’t generate surplus profits that might go to unionized workers, rather than to shareholders (that’s what the tug of war between management and labor is about), then the union is only bargaining, effectively, over severance and other closing costs (which is not nothing, but not wages and benefits going forward either).

“It often shocks conservatives to be reminded of this, but unions are capitalist institutions, they were founded in the early 19th century pretty much simultaneously with the development of modern capitalism. Managers and owners usually hate unions, but even the most militant unions look to cut a deal with management because the point is to use the union’s power to extract more money and better working conditions for workers. But there has to be profits to extract — unions can’t trump a dying industry.”

Somebody may figure out a way to make this brave new world less inhumane. But it’s going to take a while, and there will be plenty of pain along the way.


Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, is writing a book about the plight of the creative class. He runs the West Coast culture blog

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