So you’ve probably seen the posts that say things like “Join a union!” flying around. At a time of heightened precarity in our sector, the need to get organised has never been clearer. We have already seen how decades of austerity have impacted our sector resulting in closures, restructures and redundancies and discontinuing key community-centred projects. Fast forward to now where we’re dealing not only with continuation of austerity policy, but the additional impact of COVID lockdowns, the social and economic fallout from Brexit as well as the ever-raging culture wars.
In 2020 we saw the Tate propose to make 313 of it’s front of house staff redundant, in spite of the fact the gallery would receive a £7 million bailout from the government. Around the same time, the V&A was planning to make 10% of its workforce redundant and whilst specific to the lockdown situation, it’s key to contextualise these with long standing issues in our sector around poor pay conditions. After all, 2019 saw strikes from Prospect members in the Science Museum Group and Museum of London for reasons that echo contemporary strike action, such as the strikes by PCS members at the British Museum, and future strikes planned by Glasgow museum workers fighting against the council’s decision to make (according to Unison representatives) 30% of job cuts.
These are just some high profile examples of what many of our colleagues face within the sector. There are other challenges ahead as well. Whilst taking action to ensure things like decent redundancy settlements was a key priority during the lockdown era, now we’re seeing how the culture war erodes institutional commitment to inclusivity, and for others, austerity again tolls the bell for their very existence.
This is why joining a union is important. Over the COVID pandemic, we have seen how effective an organised and proactive union leadership can be - consider the teacher and postal union reps who made sure members were informed about how they could use Section 44 on occasion they felt their workplaces were not adequately safeguarded, how the activism of unions such as the NEU led to the government agreeing to shut schools.
Even if it sounds like the stuff of the 80’s, unions are vitally important because they can be a collective voice. Joining is a way of contributing to the people power they represent. One major concern right now is the lack of sector penetration which makes it more difficult to have a significant impact due to direct action alone. This is understandable as it’s hard to see how only 5% of a workforce going on strike would! However, whilst joining a union is important, it is just the first step - unions are only as strong as their members. Being active is important in order for change to actually happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking up positions within your branch, but at least try to attend meetings, check in with your representative and ask questions about what’s going on, make suggestions as to what action they should be pursuing, be open about your fears and concerns.
This is not to say that unions are always havens of intersectional activism. I’m sure there are plenty of us whose parents came to the UK in the 1950s-70s who could speak of the racism they experienced from union leadership. Still, when we look at historical examples such as the Bristol Bus Boycotts and the Grunswick dispute, the only real alternative is to create new collectives and join in solidarity with others. This is ever truer when we see right wing commentators stir up culture war narratives that are a direct attack on the vital diversity, radical queering and decolonisation work many of us are trying to do. Although museums are increasingly talking about the importance of diversity (and there are clear financial benefits for them to take it seriously), for the change we want to see to become embedded (instead of flavour-of-the-decade) does require continual collective action. In some ways, the union represents the legal and institutional expertise accumulated through over centuries of labour organising which can be a huge benefit for us seeking to make this change.
Given the reliance of our sector on short-term contracts and internships, it’s well known that there are still plenty of barriers to joining a union. If you can’t join those like Prospect or Unison, unions like bectu have discounted and negotiable rates, but it might also be worth considering the IWGB union which has been one of the most active in defense of precarious workers over the past few years. There are associations such as IPSE, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (whose services include advice and advocacy for freelance workers) and also BARACUK who are an active, intersectional organising activist group for Black workers in the cultural sector. Another idea might be to get in touch with your local Trade Council and find out what issues are being discussed. This can help indicate which issues might have knock-on effects for your area of work or indicate potential challenges on the horizon. For those who are members of bigger unions, it is important that we keep an eye on issues being felt by those in smaller unions or those unrecognised by the institutions we work at, so that we can raise these with union reps as opportunities for solidarity action. At the very least, we can ensure we’re not accidentally crossing any picket lines!
You can also show support for and protest alongside those working in similar areas of expertise. For example, those of us who specialise in Learning outreach for culture and heritage organisations, can support education and youth workers in their fight for safe work conditions and against decreased funding; those of us who work in digital and IT can get involved with UTAW or the Tech Workers Coalition; if you are a musician or performer, join the Musicians Union and so on. These are all ways of supporting each other, which enables us to more deeply understand the underlying issues and how they are connected. It’s also a way of gaining allies to speak up for us in turn.
It often feels like there is always yet another thing to be dealt with, one more thing to join, one more thing to fight. Unfortunately at a time when we are under attack from so many directions, the way to make space for something new does require a fightback. The fact is we cannot rely on those who are comfortable to advocate for us. This applies as much to leadership in the political parties to our unions themselves. They can only be held accountable by creating alternatives or to agitate (either as a member of or in solidarity) with the rank and file.
However, in light of all of these challenges, there is still lots to be energised about. I always recollect the Museum Detox Hardship Fund as a tangible example of collective material solidarity which we can all support. Even with the slightly depressing prospect for the cultural sector, there is still the opportunity to do things in ways which don’t require capitulating to neo-liberal mindsets, things which can include forming cooperatives or even new unions.
The only certain thing - apart from death and taxes, obviously - is that difficult times are ahead. As marginalised peoples, we know this and we know from our communal histories what will help us get through them.
So let’s do this - let’s get organised!
Qualitative Researcher | UX Designer | Digital Strategist | Founding member of AfroFutures_UK | Trustee of Maghony Opera and Norwich Printing Museum | Visiting Lecturer at the University of the Arts London