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Stage left: Fighting precarity in the cultural industries

Organizing within the theatre design sector suggests a way forward for other cultural workers

LabourCultureCOVID-19Social Movements

Marquee at The Anthem, a music venue in Washington, DC, that has ceased operations during the pandemic. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the performing arts across North America. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

For the past several years, worker organizing and strike action in the cultural sector have been on the rise throughout North America. While cultural workers with greater strategic leverage, such as the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have carried out successful strike actions, those working in precarious situations have faced greater obstacles. This is particularly true for freelance and other arts workers with less stable forms of employment—which is to say the vast majority.

Predictably, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the material insecurity faced by workers in the arts. Yet the pandemic has also opened opportunities for organizing in the wake of a new appreciation on the part of the public for “essential” workers, as well as the inability, or refusal, of employers and governments to ensure safe workplaces and secure incomes. For example, following on the heels of various recently unionized museums in New York City, workers at the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art undertook a wall-to-wall organizing drive after a forced COVID-19 shutdown and public revelations about highly unequal pay scales.

In Canada, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) recently made strides toward representing cultural workers beyond its traditional base of film and theatre workers (primarily technicians and stagehands). In January 2020, freelance visual artists in Vancouver formed the Arts and Cultural Workers Union: IATSE Local B-778. In October 2020, film animation workers at the Titmouse Canada studio in Vancouver voted 98 percent in favour of certifying as IATSE Local 938. These new locals represent some of the most precarious workers in the artistic sector.

The recent move by the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC), representing theatre designers throughout English Canada, to affiliate with IATSE is another promising example. ADC’s union affiliation could offer broader lessons to other freelance cultural workers seeking to improve their conditions and develop closer ties with the organized labour movement.

Theatre designers in Canada: Building a foundation

Incorporated in 1965, ADC represents various categories of theatre designers—including set, costume, lighting, video, and sound designers—and has approximately 300 members. Membership in this professional organization is entirely voluntary and not required for theatrical work in Canada. In other words, there is no “closed shop” for freelance designers. ADC has a collectively negotiated agreement with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), which represents many of Canada’s professional theatre companies. PACT companies are required to use this contract with ADC members (if requested by the member). The contract sets minimum fees and working conditions, and contains provisions for renewal, but does not include any successor status clause.

Furthermore, the bargaining relationship between the ADC and PACT is not compelled by labour law but rather is discharged according to established practice between the organizations. Although the federal Status of the Artist Act (SAA) applies to both organizations, the bargaining relationship predates it. The relative size of the ADC’s membership (approximately 60–70 percent of working theatre designers in Canada) represents a critical mass sufficient to compel PACT to the bargaining table. Finally, the collectively negotiated agreement affords stability and predictability for producers concerned with budgeting for design fees, scheduling, royalties, and other costs. However, the relatively limited size of both organizations prevents theatre designers from bargaining for more expansive benefits such as extended health and effective retirement plans.

The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. Photo by Brittani Burns/Unsplash.

Live performance sector hit hard by pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for the live performance sector. Unemployment among working theatre designers in Canada is near 100 percent, and for those who have managed to secure work, it is sporadic and infrequent. When the pandemic hit Canada in early March, most theatre designers were engaged in at least one contract at some stage of production. With a few exceptions, most theatre companies could not afford to (or simply would not) pay designers for productions that were suspended or cancelled outright. As a result, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was essential to cover their basic living costs.

Effectively, COVID-19 imposed a pause upon both the theatre and theatre design communities in Canada. The ADC’s executive committee worked throughout the spring and summer to facilitate discussions with the membership and to plan for the survival, short-term and long, of both the theatre design community and the ADC itself. These efforts led to more robust connections and communications within the community. Within the ADC, therefore, both membership and overall engagement have increased appreciably. The forced respite provided a space for theatre designers to reflect and re-evaluate their position within the overall sector and to take stock of how employment and income precarity shape their working lives. Many designers feared that without continued support, they would be forced to leave the industry.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Creative Industries Coalition (CIC) was formed between the organizations representing many of the country’s live entertainment workers: IATSE, the ADC, the Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA), and the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM). The CIC developed recommendations for economic supports and safety regulations that were presented to various federal ministers and ministries. Although all of these organizations participated equally within the CIC regardless of their relative membership size, IATSE provided most of the financial and legal resources. With its social union orientation, but also given its larger membership and greater capacities, IATSE provided these supports without asking anything of its coalition partners in return. Additionally, the CIC determined to lobby and advocate on behalf of all live performance workers, whether they held membership in one of the coalition organizations or not.

IATSE’s leadership and generosity made a significant impression on the ADC’s board of directors. In contrast to some of the theatre companies, which were unwilling or unable to advocate for designers, IATSE provided support and advocacy to the theatre design community through the CIC. Additionally, the CIC organizing activities showcased IATSE’s legal and lobbying resources, which were beyond the ADC’s capabilities. Building upon its positive experience with the CIC, the ADC’s executive committee began discussions with IATSE during the summer concerning what an affiliation between the two organizations might look like.

ADC affiliates with IATSE: Local autonomy, stronger capacity

Over the summer, the ADC membership held several town-hall meetings to clarify what union affiliation with IATSE would involve. While the membership sought access to the improved benefits that union affiliation could provide, such as extended healthcare and a better retirement plan, retaining the ADC’s institutional autonomy and distinct identity remained paramount. On October 1, in an election with 84 percent turnout, 95 percent voted in favour of affiliation with IATSE, as ADC Local 659. Affiliation creates ADC as a chartered IATSE local with national jurisdiction without requiring a certification election overseen by a provincial labour relations board. Further, it allows the organization to continue to use, and hopefully build upon, its current collective agreement with PACT.

Throughout the affiliation discussion process, ADC members looked to United Scenic Artists Local 829 (USA 829), which represents designers in the United States, as an illustrative model of unionization for theatre designers. USA 829 provided a tangible example of local autonomy, health and retirement benefits, and bargaining relationships with producers, and offered answers to ADC members’ questions about IATSE affiliation. Although labour law differs between Canada and the United States, USA 829’s example showed Canadian freelance theatre designers how local autonomy might be preserved within IATSE’s international structure.

Finally, IATSE’s interest in reaching out to workers beyond their traditional base demonstrated the union’s commitment to representing workers throughout the live performance industry, and even beyond it—a clear indicator that unions exist for all workers, including artistic workers.

Lessons for all artistic workers

The ADC’s recent affiliation with IATSE may offer broader lessons for other cultural and freelance workers seeking to organize. In drawing upon the social relations existing within professional organizations—even if loosely organized or partially inactive—there is potential for arts workers to create a basis for unionization. In the ADC’s case, this involved pursuing a chartered union affiliation that does not require labour board certified elections. As labour law becomes ever more unresponsive to the needs of nonstandard workers, unconventional union models such as this one will likely become increasingly necessary.

In today’s circumstances, in which various kinds of “alt-labour” organizations are seeking models and solutions for increasing their collective capacity, the ADC’s recent unionization and IATSE’s general outreach to precarious, artistic workers offer possibilities that other cultural and freelance workers may find equally powerful and relevant.

Conor Moore is a professional theatre designer and a board member of the Associated Designers of Canada. He recently completed an MA in sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He can be reached here.

Adam D.K. King is Post-Doctoral Visitor in the Department of Politics, York University, in Toronto. He can be reached here.


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