Working for Change
Trade unions have had a long historical association of collaboration with the arts in campaigning for political and social justice. Artists, union members and working communities traditionally share an interest in supporting struggles for democracy, fair employment rights, gender equality in the work place, combating racism, promoting community cohesion, and environmental sustainability world-wide. The unions are always willing to develop arts-led campaigns to protect public services and promote equality of opportunity for all in the education, health care, community support, arts and culture, industry and transport sectors.
There are also many well-documented arts and labour and arts-led labour advocacy projects taking place outside the unions, in Canada, USA, Australia, the UK, and the rest of Europe. However, after the UK Miners' Strike in the mid-1980s, and the increasingly right wing agendas and tactics of subsequent Governments (Conservative and Labour), the trade unions experienced a decline in political influence and grassroots membership, coinciding with a waning of interest amongst artists and curators in developing new projects or collaborative links with them. With the recent radical shift to the right in mainstream politics (the neo-Liberal agenda) and the social and economic pressures now being brought to bear on communities due to the near collapse of the international banking system, there seems to be a resurgence of interest on the part of both artists and the Trade Unions in working together.
Learning from the unions: new partnerships for environmental and social justice
From 1998 onwards Littoral has been looking at the possibility of developing some new areas of commonality and partnership that might encourage artists to reconnect with the trade union movement, and lead the unions to engage more fully with the arts and cultural sector. In particular we wanted to identify new social or critically orientated arts and cultural projects that could fit with some of the trade union sponsored campaigns for social justice, gender equality, anti-racism, and protection of migrant workers rights. There are three main problem areas that we were beginning to encounter within the art community that we felt might benefit from a consideration of the above-mentioned trade union tactics and initiatives.
Slicing the cake: the creative industries; artists’ rights and responsibilities
i) Problems encountered in some so-called socially engaged art, public art, art and community, and relational art practice. In particular there was a perceived concern in some cases these were becoming divorced from their originating critical impulses and progressive vision, or were degenerating into unedifying ‘spectacles of empathy’ for consumption mainly by art world audiences and at art biennales. Worse, in some cases artists were actually contributing to the exploitation or commodification of the very communities and individuals that they were claiming to help.
ii) Evidence of growing exploitation of artists, media workers and other cultural producers employed in the expanding cultural industries, and the witting or unwitting complicity of this sector in the exploitation of low-paid workers.
iii) Lack of an adequate representation by visual artists, or a national artists union in England, to mediate negotiations for fairer artists’ employment rights and working conditions, and have an input on the setting of priorities for arts and cultural funding policies by the Arts Council and other publicly funded cultural policy agencies.
Union Culture: protecting civil society and democracy in situations of civil conflict
A fourth consideration, which also underpins our current Working for Change partnership work, is the vital role played by the trade unions (and other cultural, social and political solidarity campaigns promoted by NGOs and working people) in safeguarding the fundamental principles of an equitable, open and democratic civil society. This is particularly so in the context of Northern Ireland, with the proactive and positive role played by the unions (led by the ICTU) in promoting community relations, the Peace and Reconciliation initiative, and sectarianism and conflict resolution in the work place, and preventing the potential for a gradual collapse of civil society due to the combined effects of extreme terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict. This was one the main motivating impulses behind the development of Littoral's ROUTES: Arts and Trade Unions project, and the Working for Change initiative that emerged from it.
LITTORAL is a non-profit arts trust which promotes new
creative partnerships, critical art practices and cultural
strategies in response to issues about social, environmental
and economic change.
LITTORAL 42, Lodge Mill Lane, Turn Village, Ramsbottom
BL0 0RW, UK
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1706 827 961
Reg. Charitable Trust No. 1002365;
Pivate Limited Company No. 2526443