Organizing: what stands in our way?
When we try to organize around issues of free labour in the culture, a number of blockages stand in our way.
This is only a middle class issue
When people say this, they often mean that this is an issue that only affects privileged people, and that real political struggles happen elsewhere. This may have been the case twenty years ago, when the cultural sector was the preserve of the middle and upper classes, but with the hype about the Creative Industries since the 1990s, the idea of a career in culture has become a much more widespread aspiration. That said, government withdrawal of funds from higher education in humanities and the arts is likely to increase the class divide between the dream and the possibility.
In addition, if we understand class in terms of income, recent reports have shown that cultural workers earn as an average 60% less than the national median of all UK employees, and 75% of them don’t have a pensions.
I’ve paid my dues, this is something everyone has to go through
Only in the last decade has the unpaid internship become common, so even if your employer did do an internship, there was a much higher chance for them to get a job at the end of it than there is for you now. While there’s been a lot of talk about the boom in the creative industries, the increasing number of graduates in the field has been matched by a systematic decline in public spending in the arts.
It’s only for six weeks
Our research over the last two years in the cultural sector in London indicates that recent graduates do upwards of five consecutive internships. After this, they are either still unemployed or are in the lowest paid and most precarious of positions
I’m desperate to find work – doing an internship is my only way in!
It is legitimate that you feel this way, but what makes this the only option is a systemic issue. Competition thrives on individual insecurity, the production of hierarchies and false scarcity. The only way to go beyond individualized despair is to recognize that it is not your burden alone to bear, but rather this is a shared condition and that you are in good company. You can decide to compete, or join others and re-imagine other ways to do culture.
Organizing cultural labour reinforces the privilege of a ‘creative class’
It is true that organizing cultural labour runs the risk of entrenching the notion of an exceptional creative class, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Cultural workers like other workers need to organize in solidarity with other struggles that around specific labour practices and broader systemic issues.
If I don’t play the game, it will seem like I am not committed (debt)
There is a particularly pernicious myth that says that people show commitment through their willingness to get into debt and make huge personal sacrifices. (Some people even pay for doing an internship!)
This belief runs deep and is propagated from school to university where being willing to pay a high fee for a course like doing an internship for free are marks of dedication. This assumes that everyone starts from the same place, and that those who don’t start from a place of privilege naturally have to work much harder for it. It also assumes that there is only one game on the table and that everyone wants the same thing.