Posted 08 June 2023
Written by Frankie Faccion

Can joining a trade union protect your creative future?

Did you know that the two-day weekend came about as a result of campaigning by trade unions? Unions are to thank for many historical wins, including the introduction of the minimum wage and a limit on working hours. Through the cost of living crisis and looking to the future, unions have been campaigning for industry-wide changes to improve working conditions for emerging creatives – yet they have routinely received negative media coverage. We explore why this is the case, share the work that unions do and hear stories from members of the Designers and Cultural Workers Union, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and Prospect, showing how the trade union movement could protect your creative future – as well as that of fellow creatives.

Many of us in the creative industries face a difficult landscape at the moment. Sectors spanning design, media, film, television and the arts continue to see structural issues: there’s nepotism in the film and television industry and unpaid work in the design industry. Plus, a recent report unveiled that artists receive a median pay of just £2.60 an hour in the public sector. Amidst the cost of living crisis, threats of job cuts and wage stagnation also loom large.

These factors have hit creative talent from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the hardest, with continued low pay making it increasingly challenging to make ends meet.

“The structural issues faced in the creative industries have been worsened by the cost of living crisis.”

We’ve seen workers taking action in protest. Recently, BBC journalists staged 48-hour strikes to make a stand against cuts to local radio services and jobs. Across the pond, we’ve also seen the writers’ strikes in Hollywood, over pay rights and the use of artificial intelligence on sets.

These examples are part of a much larger picture of worker dissatisfaction extending beyond just the creative industry. In the past year, we’ve seen union members of all professions out on strike: from rail and postal workers, to nurses, doctors, barristers and more. They’ve been campaigning for matters including pay rises to meet the soaring rates of inflation and protection from mass redundancy.

As we explore in our resources article on creative unions...

A trade union is essentially a group of workers who band together to preserve and improve their working and employment conditions. They train representatives to organise and deal with matters such as:

  • Negotiating agreements with employers on fair pay and working conditions
  • Discussing alarming changes to employment, such as large-scale redundancy
  • Accompanying members to disciplinary and grievance meetings
  • Discussing any concerns that members have with their employer

On top of these, unions often undertake political and industry-focused campaigning on behalf of workers’ interests, and organise strikes when agreements cannot be reached.

Who can unions help, and how?

As a creative, there are a number of benefits to joining a union. Trade unions can:

  • Advise creative freelancers on legal or contractual matters, including challenging late payments or requests for unpaid speculative work – often seen in design professions

  • Provide support and advice to employees on issues concerning pay, contracts, discrimination or harassment at work

  • Organise campaigns and industrial action for higher pay and better working conditions

  • Provide free training courses, networking events and a creative network

  • Allow members to raise employment concerns to a democratically elected union representative, who can speak up on members’ behalf

But unions don’t always win
Though they can provide a lot of support to creatives, trade unions in our industries have faced both wins and losses alike. Take the devastating closure of Oldham Coliseum, one of the last remaining arts hubs in a Northern working-class town. It went forward despite a passionate campaign backed by unions and high-profile actors.

But there are also success stories, like the Scottish government’s recent u-turn on a funding cut to Creative Scotland [the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries in the country] – which came about as a result of campaigning from creative unions across the UK.

Creative trade union members campaigning for Oldham Coliseum. Image courtesy of Equity

Unions portrayed as “greedy” and “unethical” in the media
Recently, you might have seen headlines and think-pieces from the right-wing press deeming the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers [RMT] secretary-general Mick Lynch a “militant union boss” for leading large-scale strikes that have caused UK-wide disruption to travel for over a year. Many media outlets have portrayed such strikes as a greedy, unethical imposition on the public. In reality, however, everyone has a fundamental right to take action, and would be likely to do so when they aren’t being paid enough to match increases in the cost of daily necessities.

Political hostility towards unions
There’s also been negative responses towards strikes and trade unions from both the Conservative government and opposition Labour party. Current Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked then Shadow transport minister Sam Tarry from the cabinet for joining a picket line, where striking workers gather outside their workplace to demonstrate. Plus, the Conservative government is attempting to push through new laws to undermine workers’ ability to strike.

Despite all this, the new wave of trade unionism is the strongest it has been in a decade. In January 2023, up to 50,000 workers from eight different trade unions walked out of their jobs. During these increasingly difficult times, it’s clear that people of all industries are standing up to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions.

“The new wave of trade unionism is the strongest it has been in a decade. In January 2023, up to 50,000 workers walked out of their jobs.”

With that said, is it worth joining one?
As a creative worker, it can be difficult to feel like you have any power to bargain for better rights. This could be particularly the case if you’re a freelancer or a junior member of staff. The nature of freelancing can be isolating: working alone while juggling client demands, often without co-workers or a community to lean on for advice, means you might not be aware of all your rights or when you’re being exploited. Likewise, a lower pay grade and level of seniority could inhibit you from raising issues with your employer.

We hear from three union members below, whose stories show how unions can help their members fight for more equitable working conditions.

Stories from creative union members

The Designers + Cultural Workers Union: An individual struggle became a collective win

Members of the Designers + Cultural Workers Union

Joining a union means accessing a “network of care and a structure of support”, says Alex*, a member of the Designers + Cultural Workers Union. A branch of the United Voice of the World Unite [DCW-UVW] union, they represent anyone who considers themselves a cultural worker. Their aim is to unionise workers across the creative industries, including freelancers, and combat exploitative labour practices.

“Trade unionism in the creative industry is about building sustained worker power and advocating [for] culture change.”

Alex was required to complete unpaid pitch work – a common exploitative industry practice where job applicants are asked to hand in hours of work before even landing the job. So they reached out to their union representative at the DCW, who contacted the potential employer to flag that they had fallen short of good working practice. Alex remained anonymous throughout the entire process, and after a constructive dialogue between the union and the employer, everyone who had completed unpaid pitch work in their application was remunerated.

Trade unionism is a “collective, non-service oriented framework,” say the DCW. This means membership isn’t only about receiving a service or protecting your individual rights; it’s about “building sustained worker power and advocating [for] culture change.” In this case, Alex’s individual struggle became a collective win: not only were they paid for their work, but the company involved recognised the wider industry issue and compensated the other candidates.

*We have replaced Alex’s real name to protect their identity

Guleraana Mir: Unions can provide essential industry resources – even for freelancers

Guleraana Mir, writer, theatre-maker and equality and diversity committee member for The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

Collective action is something writer, theatre-maker and executive director Guleraana Mir is familiar with. Sitting on The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Equality and Diversity committee, she says that organising in her union looks like “a bunch of people meeting online every three to four months, raising issues, hashing out solutions and divvying up work that needs to be done.”

Guleraana was instrumental in the Guild’s launch of their own access rider. This is a document that a freelance writer in the theatre, film, TV, publishing or video game industry can give to a client that provides specific details about their disability and how it affects their work.

“Organising in a union looks like a bunch of people meeting online every three to four months, raising issues, hashing out solutions and divvying up work.”

Recently, Guleraana was commissioned to write a play for a London theatre. As a creative with ADHD, the Guild’s access rider has helped her communicate her needs to rest of the team she is working with. The team have been able to schedule meetings, plan deadlines and dramaturgy sessions “in a way that suits me best,” she says.

She’s also been able to have her support worker attend script read-throughs and meetings to take notes, allowing her focus to be on the work instead of “frantically trying to keep up with what’s being said.” In particular, Guleraana says it’s the Guild’s commitment to the use of the access rider that gave her the confidence to actively use it in her work.

Zey Kussan: Minority groups should join unions and speak up

Zey Kussan, union chair and health and safety representative for Prospect

Museum of London curator Zey Kussan also believes in the power of talking issues through to strengthen workers’ rights and conditions. She’s been an active unionist since the 1990s, becoming a Prospect union chair and health and safety representative during the pandemic.

As a member of the steering group of Museum as Muck, a collective organisation for working-class museum workers, she’s well-versed when it comes to matters of socio-economic disparity within the arts and heritage sectors. ”A union is only as good as its members,” she says, and in the museum sector, ”the majority of [workers] are middle to upper class, so the members are less likely to be fighting for working-class issues.”

“If you are part of a minority group, forming a collective and voicing your needs within a union is all the more important.”

However, during the pandemic, Prospect began to appoint more union representatives for the museum who were working class, POC and identified as LGBTQ+, Zey says, and they were able to speak on behalf of the issues their respective groups faced.

But this evolution, although welcome, came with its own challenges. “As soon as you start talking about supporting the minority, you have to have some difficult conversations to educate your peers,” Zey says. Though these dialogues can be tough to navigate, mainly because the industry – and its unions – are still dominated by the well off, Zey is “still pro-union through and through.” As an ethnically diverse working class woman, she believes that building a collective of minority voices within a union is more impactful and productive than trying to speak up alone.

Trade unions can provide support on an individual level, but as we’ve seen in these stories, they are ultimately collective movements towards a future with better working conditions. They advocate for sustainable change by bringing people together to fight for the long-term.

What might hold you back from joining?

It’s another expense
You have to pay to be a member of a trade union, which may seem like another added cost in a time of economic struggle. Typically, you’ll pay monthly: for instance, the DCW charges a flat rate of £10 a month for all members, whereas Bectu, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union, operates on a sliding scale dependent on income.

It’s worth noting that all of the money goes back into funding the union and staff wages. Many unions also provide stipends for sick pay or strikes if you need to take industrial action. ”It’s an investment,” Guleraana says. “When you look at the amount of work a union does, it’s justified: they’re fighting for your rights in the industry and trying to make it fairer.”

“Being a union member is a justified investment – they’re fighting for your rights in the industry and trying to make it fairer.”

Fear of being blacklisted by employers or clients
The idea of being a vocal union member speaking up against injustice in the industry might make you fearful that your employer or clients might want to blacklist you from projects. However, you should know that it’s your legal right to be a union member, and it is against the law for anyone to dismiss you for that reason. Remember that you would have the support of your union if anything like this were to happen; you can read more about your rights to join a union here.

Rather than plastering up cracks with temporary solutions, unions aim to build for the future. But they are only as good as their members make them. If you join one, you’ll have the opportunity to shape what that future could look like, alongside a community of people who work in similar roles or environments as you. Not only could being a union member protect your individual rights and future, it might also enable you to potentially be part of something much bigger: protecting the future of the collective and creating long-term change.

Resources and further reading

Special thanks to Zey Kussan, Guleraana Mir, Faiza Mahmood, Benjamin Price, The Designers + Cultural Workers’ Union, Bectu and The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

Written by Frankie Faccion