The Necessity of Unions in the Arts and Culture Sector

If I’m honest, I don’t know how much hope or desire I have to work in the arts sector anymore. I’ve completed both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in art history and my love for the subject has not dwindled in the slightest, despite the amount of money, tears and mental duress that has gone into them. In fact, I’m planning to eventually continue onto a PhD even though a career in academia doesn’t scream security either and still wouldn’t provide a large enough stepping stone into the arts sector. 

The day I handed in my masters dissertation in 2020 I also lost my furloughed job in hospitality, my ties to education and work being severed all within 24 hours. I had no reason to not put all of my effort into trying to get jobs in the arts industry and I really did try to, but the best results were when I actually received a rejection email. Admittedly I knew I didn’t stand much of a chance. I had never been able to volunteer in art galleries or other similar places whilst also balancing work and my studies. The arts industry has always been notoriously difficult to get into and succeed, benefiting those with connections and the ability to afford a very low or non-existent wage. 

Of course, I had also graduated into a global pandemic. COVID-19, supported by the fallout from Brexit, has created an unemployment crisis throughout the United Kingdom that has affected the lowest paid workers, young people and sectors like hospitality and the arts the most. Many art and heritage spaces were forced to close their doors at least temporarily and place many of its employees on furlough, reducing already low wages to 80%. Moreover, there was a significant threat of and actual redundancies, the Museum Association has kept a tracker monitoring job losses in the museum sector, as of its last update on 5th August 2021 it stands at 4690. 

Big names in the UK artworld including National Trust, National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Southbank Centre, and Historic Royal Palaces all announced job losses. However, perhaps the most talked about attempt at job cuts was from Tate Enterprises. Tate Enterprises, owned by Tate and which runs retail, publishing and catering branches, planned to cut over 300 jobs across the four galleries due to loss of revenue from covid-closures. The result was a 42-day strike by Tate employees, supported by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the demands including no redundancies whilst some senior employees were being paid £100k a year and 10% of the expected £7 million bailout money from the government to be used to save jobs. The strike eventually ended after a deal was finalised including better redundancy payments and improved re-employment.

The PCS have subsequently backed the Manifesto for Cultural Workers released by Public Services International (PSI). PSI, a Global Union Federation of over 700 trade unions in 154 countries and representing 30 million workers, have outlined 12 key demands and strategic aims focusing on ending the “exploitation of cultural workers through low and unequal pay”, making the culture industry more accessible and “decolonising the culture sector and mitigating undue domination of western art forms”. These aims need to be considered together rather than separately because those affected by low pay and increased risk of redundancy are also more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds. In recent years, with movements like Decolonise This Place, there has been a greater emphasis on making the culture sector and its sites to be less white, and to celebrate non-western art. Yet that cannot be done effectively when the employees are not respected or paid a liveable wage, otherwise it is simply ethics washing. 

I’m still unsure about any future I might have within the art and culture sector. Regardless, I know that I will continue to visit art galleries and take part in cultural institutions for as long as I am able to, and that means I must also support organisations and unions which are advocating for the rights of the workers and bringing accountability to the powerful structures which operate in the arts. 

By Sarah Fay

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