The latest UnionDues podcast features an in-depth discussion with Zita Holbourne – PCS national vice-president, co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) and co-chair of the Artists Union of England (AUE). The last of these roles is what we focus on.
And perhaps that’s right – because although Zita’s work on civil rights, anti-racism, with the TUC, PCS and others is arguably of more weight, when do we ever get to talk about unionising and the world of visual artists?
Meet the Artists’ Union of England
So, meet the AUE – a little more than 5 years old, “staffed” entirely by volunteers, and a membership highly vulnerable to sharp employment practice and uncovered buy any of the government’s Covid income protection schemes.
So since when did artists become preoccupied with unionisation? The answer, like fashion models, podcasters, and other visual creatives, is often found in ten years of austerity and the explosion of precarious work.
“We deal every day with members who say they’ve been asked to produce work for free, had contracts reneged upon and suffered with poor unclear terms and conditions, “ says Zita.
Good Practice Charter
So, what can be done? Zita points with justifiable satisfaction to the union’s Good Practice Charter, which invites employers and commissioners to sign up to, well, good practice in the areas of The principles include Valuing and Rewarding Artists, Health & Safety, Diversity and Equality, Work with Trade Unions, Social Responsibility and Mental Health in the Workplace.
The brainchild of AUE founder member Theresa Easton and drawn up by a working group (co-incidentally comprised entirely of northern artists), it is already bearing fruit, being endorsed by organisations such as Monkfish Productions Trapped In Zone One, Art In Liverpool and Pavilion Hive . As an illustration of something that simultaneously services existing members and organises new ones, it takes some beating. “It just seeks to address issues that are missing for artists,” says Zita.
As a small volunteer-run body, Zita acknowledges that it can sometimes be hard at AUE to find space and time to think strategically, but Brexit followed by the pandemic means that certainly “we do need a cultural recovery” – and Zita’s engagement with a sister union in Canada and the global PSI federation gives useful food for thought on how this can be achieved. Local authority commissioning is one such pathway.
Does Art matter?
But underlying this is the nagging question – does any of this really matter? Isn’t art elitist at best, unimportant at worst. As the AUE’s national banner has it – “Industry without Art is brutality.” It’s part of what makes us human.
Zita explains: “Art crosses borders, art has no borders,” which is why the custom and practice of international solidarity comes readily to the AUE. Zita describes the commonality that links AUE to her other campaigning and artistic work, saying straightforwardly “I bring socialist values and equality at the heart of everything into all the roles I play.”
So, if you think modern art and artists begins and ends with the Big Painting Competition, this episode will make you think again!
#thought4theweek – why organise?
Glasgow University Professor of Work and Employment Mel Simms has a barnstorming #thought4theweek asking the $64k question – What Are we Organising For? Pain, sorrow, frustration and waste lie in wait for those who don’t know the answer.
#RadicalRoundUp and BIJ survey
Plus of course Josiah Mortimer with a preview of the #RadicalRoundUp, featuring GMB health and social care members anger over self-isolation exemption , massive member support for ongoing UCU pay campaigns, Bakers’ union highlighting shocking food poverty, NUJ calling out insidious Pegasus spyware, and Unite efforts to saving manufacturing jobs in Rolls Royce at Barnoldswick.
We also take a special look at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s expose of broken promises for Care workers.
This is the last episode of our current series. Thanks to all who contributed, especially Mel and Josiah. You can access all past shows here. We will have a couple of specials over the next few weeks – one on the enduring legacy of the Matchgirls’ dispute, and another featuring ADCU General Secretary (and Supreme Court winner) James Farrar on life in a “new union” and taking on Uber. Subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice and you won’t miss a thing!
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Stay safe and see you soon.