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‘I had a debate with the curator… about the need to pay artists… The curator’s argument centred on the belief that artists are intrinsically motivated and that money is not the reason why people make art.’ – ARTSLOG

In 2018, artists Nina Ross and Gabrielle de Vietri created ARTSLOG, an online database for ​Australian artists to anonymously share their working experiences. Similar to Fair Plate for hospitality workers, ARTSLOG aims to start conversations about the difficulties artists face in the workplace with unfair rates and conditions.

The submissions are dispiriting, detailing instances of wage theft, poor recompense and unpaid labour from some of Australia’s highest-profile arts institutions and well-known commissioning companies.

‘I felt vulnerable and nervous about starting a conversation about the pay. I was scared of making enemies – in a smaller scene it feels like you really need to keep people on side even wen (sic) they’re acting inappropriately’ – ARTSLOG

Few pursuing an artistic career expect to get rich, hold one job for life, or work only office hours. Most anticipate reasonable compromises. But compensation and working conditions in the creative sector have plunged to unprecedented depths. An artists’ average annual income is now only $48,400 per year, 21 per cent below the workforce average, and their creative work is supplemented by increasingly amounts of non-creative income, spending 19 per cent less time on their craft than in 2009.

Creative professionals, while better off than artists, also face a bleak labour market – workers in book publishing, for instance, have seen average pay fall by 8 per cent since 2013, and nearly two-thirds of the workforce believe their wages do not reflect their skills and experience.

It is not that wages and conditions are not inadvertently sluggish, but that exploitation has been normalised. The expressions of fear, regret and anger documented in ARTSLOG illustrate that artistic and creative professionals are often nervous to ask for legal, liveable wages and conditions. Many creative workers feel unable to decline or renegotiate unsustainable and offensive payment offers from employers or clients, out of simple desperation and fear of diminished future opportunities.

Many creative workers feel unable to decline or renegotiate offers from employers or clients, out of simple desperation and fear of diminished future opportunities.

‘I believe I underpaid or exploited myself, but I am playing the game of being an artist and I’m just accepting the conditions’ – ARTSLOG

Hearing the many disheartening stories on her platform, Nina Ross had an idea. Nothing novel, but a creative spark nonetheless. She saw, as countless millions have before her, the inexorable logic of workers standing in solidarity to counterbalance their bosses’ concentrated power, and proposed forming a union.

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Since the 1990s, Australian unions have suffered diminishing legal powers and declining membership, caused by hostile conservative governments, the decline of union-dominated industries and less familiarity and active support among potential members. Unions have subsequently been less able to pressure employers for better deals for employees, which has significantly contributed to wage stagnation and poor working conditions.

Union density amongst Australia’s creative professionals has fallen from 23 per cent to 8 per cent in the past two decades. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union representing most employees in the creative industries, lost 31 per cent of its members between 1994 and 2016, slightly above average compared to other unions. This has significantly diminished its strength to bargain and campaign, evidenced in mass layoffs in journalism, significant budget cuts in the arts and widespread curtailment of freedom of expression.

In some art forms, membership remains strong. ‘Actors have minimum call out fees and decent rights and conditions’, says writer and former MEAA vice-president Van Badham. ‘There’s a very good reason for that – the vast majority are union members. Playwrights are also on good contracts, because our union had the agency and the heft to demand collective agreements’.

But elsewhere, the culture of workplace solidarity has dissipated. It’s a compounding problem – as regressive legislation and economic changes have gradually suppressed workers’ power to negotiate better pay and conditions, the only people who can consistently survive in the arts are the relatively privileged who can, at least temporarily, work for little or nothing, and for whom working-class institutions are not customary.

As regressive legislation and economic changes have gradually suppressed workers’ power to negotiate better pay and conditions, the only people who can consistently survive in the arts are the relatively privileged.

‘I come from a working-class family,’ says Badham. ‘So joining the union was not something I ever had to think about.’ As an 18-year-old university student and aspiring playwright, she joined the Australian Writers Guild, both for class solidarity and professional recognition.

‘But if you grow up with a comparative amount of class privilege, it is difficult to think of yourself as disempowered, as a bee in the hive, not the queen bee’, she says. ‘The impact that kind of attitude can have on an industry is that lots of people are prepared to work for free because it is about them and their destiny, not about the profession’.

I myself once bought into that sense of destiny, as a naive teenager subconsciously convinced my words were special, that exhausting my creative capacities might be enough to propel me through the choppy waters of adulthood. After losing thousands in stolen wages to an unscrupulous employer, and innumerable more to reduced working capacity born from chronic fatigue syndrome, the inextricable reliance upon and thus responsibility to one’s fellow employees is now all too clear.

The romanticisation of creative work assists in pacifying agitation. The insidious belief that the ‘privilege’ of plying your trade is itself a form of payment permits the undercutting of real wages and conditions, ultimately excluding those for whom being paid in ‘exposure’ is simply unsustainable.

The Australian public are increasingly realising the material poverty and burnout such sentiments lead to. In the hospitality industry, a spate of wage theft allegations against celebrity chefs, abetted by MasterChef’s ‘show me how much you want it’ vision of the culinary arts, has reinvigorated industrial action – a cultural awakening that has seen new digital union Hospo Voice signing up over 1000 members and winning swathes of backpay. Could such momentum build in Australian arts and culture?

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2019 has seen some promising signs, from ABC employees winning $23 million backpay for systemic wage theft, to TV casts and crews, digital writers and other creative workers negotiating improved wages and conditions. Perhaps the most notable and encouraging win was the unionising of publisher Penguin Random House and their negotiation of an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that locked in pay rises of between 3 per cent and 6 per cent, time off in lieu, transparent pay grades and more. Despite the MEAA and AMWU already representing and advocating for different parts of the industry, PRH saw a significant increase in density and engagement, and their collective action resulted in the first union enterprise agreement for the industry.

In a highly feminised industry, where editors’ passion for their work and doomsaying about the industry’s health have too often been weaponised by employers to suppress wages and conditions, book publishers pooled their labour power and negotiated a fairer deal. As book editor and MEAA delegate Bethany Patch wrote in the Guardian, ‘unionising has given us a voice in decisions that affect us daily – an opportunity for our rights and interests to be truly represented and bargained for collectively’.

The insidious belief that the ‘privilege’ of plying your trade is itself a form of payment permits the undercutting of real wages and conditions.

For Nina Ross, a recent residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop gave her space to explore that banal yet daring idea – the ‘Union of Working Artists’. Despite a long and complex history of visual artists’ involvement with the Australian union movements, they are not currently represented by a traditional union. Ross and her creative partner Stephen Palmer produced artworks calling for renewed collective action and held workshop discussions with visual artists and allies to discuss unionising.

‘The visual arts are the perfect storm, so independent and individual, that it is really hard to collectivise’, says Ross. ‘But there is definitely interest there, given the tough slog of working in the arts. I also see an alliance with art workers, who are also working hard in tough conditions’.

Coalescing disparate individuals around a collective agenda is a formidable task, especially in a sector with pockets of extreme isolation, and where the ‘maverick genius’ myth often encourages individual striving over collective bargaining.

‘There is sometimes an element to the arts that is very individualistic; when focusing on artistic expression we often focus on ourselves, including by reading hagiography about other artists that propagandises a sense of individual greatness and creative destiny,’ says Badham. ‘That is a barrier to thinking collectively. Ultimately, what makes great art is the capacity to speak to humanity, and without standing collectively with other humans, I doubt art is what will ultimately make your name’.

Most artists and creative professionals know the deep bonds formed on stages, in studios and in writers’ rooms with their colleagues; the inspiration and vitality borne from creative collaboration and exchange. Amid precarity and austerity, creative professionals must rediscover that fruitful collaboration in the economic realm, and pool our resources in pursuit of a better bargain. The need – and the incentives – have never been greater.