In 1905, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded to unionize workers who were on the margins of the capitalist economic system—workers who were highly replaceable because of the transitory nature of their positions, such as lumberjacks and farm workers, as well as those in dangerous, low-paying jobs like miners and longshoremen. With an IWW card, labourers of all kinds were able to realize their workers’ rights and take different jobs seasonally, all under the protection of the same industrial union that operated on collective bargaining. Today the IWW still identifies as “a rank-and-file-run, international union dedicated to the abolition of the wage system,” though its power has been diminished by the gradual decline of a robust labour movement and a public conscience therein.
This might sound familiar: A precarious and mobile class of workers, surviving by cobbling together seasonal contracts and various casual jobs. The gig economy, and indeed the untethered, dispersed, freelance nature of so much artistic labour could stand to gain from a similar model of labour organizing that recognizes the circumstances of the working class as they exist today. One of the biggest challenges to trade unions in the past forty years has been adapting to a labour force increasingly detached from a single employer, which occurs in a feedback loop with a long history of strikebreaking, union busting, worker disempowerment, and worker atomization via platforms built by tech companies that circumvent labour rights (think Uber.)
2020 was an inflection point. We’ve lived with a systems-breaking pandemic, in which the scale of the suffering and damage done starkly reflects the decades-long neglect and obliteration of public infrastructure and social institutions by those in power. Recessions and natural disasters have similarly revealed these dysfunctions before, but this time the devastation was global. And though the year is over, we aren’t out of the woods. We’ve been confronted with crumbling healthcare infrastructure and emergency preparedness (or a lack thereof); widespread poverty, unemployment, and poor workers’ rights; homelessness and eviction crises; and the corruption and racism at the very core of policing. What these things all have in common is that they disclose capitalism’s many indignities in real terms, laying bare the ways in which this superstructure is reinforced by exploitation and control.
Those of us working in the arts were directly confronted with the reality of a stratified art system. Administrators were able to work from home, but techs, installers, and gallery attendants were sent back to work in public once galleries re-opened. As one of these workers, I felt like an expendable part of an institution, which was operating as though it were protecting some inalienable right to art during a global health crisis. To quote writer and editor Jaclyn Bruneau’s excellent essay from 2018 on the invisible labour of art handlers and install techs, and how artists and arts workers also rely on these jobs, the art world “puffs out its chest about progressive politics, materialist and institutional critique, and social justice. Antioppression sentiments that are paid lip service via mandates, job postings and, yes, programming and exhibitions are often not reflected in internal operations and work culture.” This labour exploitation largely benefits arts institutions as employers. And while it is true that artistic labour’s dynamics of control and exploitation make it unique to other work, arts workers should identify themselves as workers, in solidarity with those in other fields with the same material circumstances.
Class is not an identity; rather, it is a social relation. In saying social institutions have been neglected and hollowed out, I am referring to the gradual breakdown of how people come together in service of collective goals.
An over-used and watered-down term in cultural discourse, neoliberalism has been reduced to an eye-roll-worthy buzzword. Here, I am speaking of the economic reality that has developed over the past four decades, that is, when governments sell off state-owned resources to an unregulated private sector; public infrastructure is slashed; technological corporations wield political power; people are increasingly alienated from each other by various forms of austerity; and labour rights are gradually stripped, resulting in emergent models of work that circumvent job security, living wages, health benefits, and other workers’ protections. I mean neoliberalism as it has begotten the death of the social.
Class is not an identity; rather, it is a social relation. In saying social institutions have been neglected and hollowed out, I am referring to the gradual breakdown of how people come together in service of collective goals. Forty years of indoctrination into market logic has made relating to each other increasingly transactional. To quote Suzahn Ebrahimian in the Militant Research Handbook, solidarity “doesn’t mean that every person around the globe adopts the same causes, slogans, same tactics as international signifiers of ‘authentic’ revolution. That is not liberation, that is branding.”[i] Solidarity as a product is detrimental to a more meaningful practice of solidarity along the lines of a real collective struggle against a common foe.
Like academia, the professionalization of the arts occludes the material analysis that enables workers to recognize their common struggles. Neoliberalism discourages people from organizing along the lines of how they make their livings, as well as from understanding the exercise of material power on those things. To counteract this, art workers should read and learn from labour history, as it has much to teach us about class, state power, political economy, resistance, and organizing for a shared purpose.
Video artist Christina Battle recently wrote a poignant essay on the 1986 Gainers meatpacking strike in Edmonton, images of which have impacted her practice since she saw them in the newspaper as a child. She pays particular attention to the lasting effects of this strike on the erosion of workers’ protections and bargaining rights over the years, as well as of collective memory and solidarity with workers among the Canadian public. Likewise noting the development of neoliberalism in the 1980s as a critical turning point, Battle writes, “I wonder how my work would be different if these images from 1986 didn’t continue to haunt me, if our collective visual culture wasn’t constantly having to imagine futures bound by the injustices felt across our experience.”
Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, whose collaborative work since the 1970s has thematized events in Canadian labour history, played a part in CARFAC’s institution as a collective bargaining representative for artist fees in Canada. In 1968, artist Jack Chambers created Canadian Artists’ Representation (CAR) in response to the National Gallery of Canada reproducing his work without permission or compensation. Established by Chambers and pro-labour progressive artists in Southern Ontario, CAR reasoned that while artists’ work gave galleries meaning, artists were the only ones within the system of art’s economy not being properly compensated for their labour. Condé and Beveridge started the Independent Artists Union (IAU) in 1985 in response to CARFAC, citing dissatisfaction with its conservatism and nationalism (one had to be a Canadian citizen to benefit from its fee schedule.) While the IAU only lasted about four years, by arguing that competitive grants could be restructured into funding for a living wage, they planted a seed for organizing artists as “dependent contractors,” with arts councils and public institutions as frequent employers.
The art system is made up of many different types of overlapping labour, from the manual labour of creating and installing, to the administrative and intellectual work of writing, editing, and curating. Some are gainfully employed, some are (in)dependent contractors. This stratification makes labour-based organizing difficult, particularly with models of funding and cultural policies built around the figure of the individual Professional Artist, which discourages an affinity with one another. This is not to say that every person working in the arts comes from the same class background and has the same class interests; this is stratified just as well, and adds to the field’s uniquely complicated landscape. Moreover, these social differences, art’s relationship to globalization, and the general casualization of labour have drastically changed the terrain of working in the art system since the IAU existed.
As Karl Beveridge remarked in a 2015 interview, “making political art within the art market system doesn’t go anywhere. You have to connect with people outside.” Aligning with the union movement in the 1980s allowed Condé and Beveridge to think about both differences and similarities between artists and other workers within an established structure. The idea was to exchange experiences and organize around shared issues. In Vancouver, VALU CO-OP has begun to pick up where the IAU left off, forming the Arts and Culture Workers Union local under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in January 2020. As part of the wider labour movement, their sights–particularly throughout the pandemic–have been focused on collective, province-wide union representation for arts workers and freelancers, including health benefits for all members.
Figuring out our place in an organized left and labour movement goes far beyond our capabilities or grievances within the insular art system. We need to ground our existence within the larger ecology of workers, tenants, and citizens. Neoliberalism has recalibrated every little thing to be conceived as the sum of individual choices, rather than a decline in political will, while leftist politics has internalized fighting over scraps. A robust labour movement in the interest of addressing our material needs would expand to encapsulate all the forms of disaffectedness we are all experiencing. Imagine if there were an Arts and Culture Workers local union in every province, and if the IAU’s goal of a living wage for artists without the competition for funding became a reality. Brushing up on Canada’s labour history; talking to coworkers, relatives, neighbours, and fellow artists about shared visions; contacting union organizers—these are simple ways to get started. We all deserve better, so it’s time to get our hands dirty.