At our Freelancers Unite! event last month, Hub Islington had the pleasure of meeting Greig de Peuter, a Canadian academic who is part of the Cultural Workers Organize group, a collaborative research project looking at the role that freelancers in the arts, communication and cultural industries are playing in advocating for their own Labour rights. In the guest post below, Greig and his colleagues share what they’ve learned from the new activist groups and organisations they’ve encountered through their researched.

By Cultural Workers Organize

Earlier this month, about twenty people gathered on a hot London evening at The HUB Islington for an event called “Freelancers Unite! What rights are we fighting for?” Taking inspiration from recent efforts in Berlin to ignite a freelancers’ movement, this event was part of the space’s “50 Days of Freelancing” series. Speakers gave a big-picture view of the spread of independent work and zeroed in on the flipside of making a living in a flexible labour economy. Among concerns that participants shared were clients who don’t pay, pressure to do work for free (or almost free), and uncertain access to contracts following maternity leave. One of the things that the “Freelancers Unite!” event demonstrated is that coworking spaces are promising places for gathering members of a workforce whose trademark dispersal can make it tricky to reflect—and act—on livelihood issues collectively.

Coincidently, “Freelancers Unite!” took place while we were visiting London for a research project exploring how contract workers, the self-employed, part-timers, interns and other flexworkers are responding to precarity in the vaunted creative industries. The term precarity, popularised by social-movement activists in the early 2000s, gives a name to economic, social, and existential insecurities that are endured by workers outside the fraying model of a stable, nine-to-five job-for-life backed by benefits. Just some of the forms that precarity can take include a lack of access to social protections (many of which were designed around full-timers), a gap in income between gigs, a feeling of being ‘always on’ for a job search that never ends, and reluctance to press a client on money matters when reputation is so important for getting repeat work in informal labour markets.

Our ongoing research is about the remaking of labour politics in precarious times and the contributions to that process by flexible workers in creative industries. Over the past few years, we’ve been carrying out interviews with people involved in coworking spaces, professional associations, policy development, trade unions, and rank-and-file labour activism, mainly in London, Milan, New York City, and Toronto. We’re looking at what so-called non-standard workers and their allies are doing to call attention to, challenge, and mitigate precarity in the arts, media, and cultural sectors.

Our research has coincided with some inspiring developments. For example, Arts & Labor, a group fighting inequality in the art world, grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Legal actions and social media campaigns against exploitative internships have been waged by young people who are unimpressed by an austerity-age job market that treats getting paid as a bonus. A Canadian Member of Parliament—and a musician by craft—has launched what he calls the Urban Worker Strategy, a policy bid to update the national social protection framework to accommodate the growing numbers of workers in unstable employment. And cultural workers in Milan boldly attempted to take over an abandoned skyscraper as a space in which to experiment with alternative modes of cultural production.

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Image by Greig de Peuter.

These examples are, admittedly, very different from one another. But they all point to an emerging politics of work in the creative economy. In the cities where we’ve been doing research, flexworkers are responding to precarity through the creation of new workers’ associations, such as Freelancers Union, the Model Alliance, the Canadian Intern Association, W.A.G.E, and Associazione Consulenti Terziario Avanzato, to name only a handful.

These organisations are sprouting up outside of the institutions that have traditionally sought to represent workers’ concerns and protect their livelihoods—unions. But established unions in the cultural industries, where work has been organized along project-based lines for a long time, continue to play an important role. Beyond enduring objectives like securing minimum standard rates for contract workers, unions in the creative sector have initiated fresh campaigns against threats to their members’ working conditions. To mention just two UK examples, Musicians’ Union has challenged the expectation to perform for free (in exchange for ‘exposure’) with its “Work Not Play” campaign, and a number of unions have teamed up on “Lost Arts” to raise awareness about austerity’s impact on arts and culture and its producers.

In addition to campaigns and organisations, we’re also researching policies—on social protections, income security, and the right to collectively bargain—that would put non-standard workers on a more equal footing with their counterparts in standard employment. A final facet of our research encompasses ways of organising work and workplaces differently—from the bottom up. One example here is co-operatives, an alternative model that’s had some attention in the media and communication sector and in coworking as well. Other examples include performance spaces—such as Rome’s Teatro Valle—that are occupied and managed by cultural workers.

Working in creative sectors is often perceived as so intrinsically gratifying that fighting to improve conditions would seem to be a moot point. Our research troubles that assumption. And while the initiatives we’re researching certainly face big challenges, what’s increasingly clear is that independent workers are getting it together, realising that individual coping strategies simply aren’t enough for a changing world of work.

Cultural Workers Organize is a collaborative research project of Enda Brophy (Simon Fraser University), Nicole Cohen (University of Toronto), and Greig de Peuter (Wilfrid Laurier University). 

Want to learn more about freelancers and labour rights? Join us at our event on with freelance rights pioneer Joel Dullroy on Wednesday 14 August, from 6pm through 8pm. Click here for more info and to reserve your free ticket.

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