Since 2015, well over 100 media outlets have unionized. Thousands of media workers have taken collective action to improve their working conditions. They are starting unions to win fairness, dignity, and a stronger voice at work. This video shows what’s behind the organizing wave in digital media, how workers organized their unions, and what they won by unionizing.
A hybrid co-op primer and research report, Sharing Like We Mean It: Working Co-operatively in the Cultural and Tech Sectors is based on a survey of more than 100 co-operatives in Canada, the UK, and the US. It offers a snapshot of the co-op landscape in creative industries, explores what co-operative work can look like in practice, and features profiles of several worker co-ops. Our survey results confirm that the co-operative model is a promising strategy for mitigating individualized patterns of work, democratizing work relationships, and providing satisfying work in creative industries contexts.
From BuzzFeed to the Los Angeles Times, over 60 newsrooms have unionized since 2015. What began as a flash of organizing by digital-first journalists has become a full-blown movement to unionize journalism, primarily in the United States. New Media Unions: Organizing Digital Journalists documents a historic and ongoing moment in the digital media industry that has brought thousands of media workers into the labour movement. Nicole Cohen and Greig de Peuter examine what motivates union drives, then follow journalists through the making of a union from scratch. They explore how journalists strategically self-organize, apply their communication skills to alternative ends, generate affective bonds of solidarity, and build power to confront anti-union campaigns and bargain first contracts, winning significant gains and drafting a new labour code for journalism in a digital age.
At a moment of tremendous flux in journalism, unions are trending in newsrooms. In conjunction with the publication of our book New Media Unions: Organizing Digital Journalists, we have produced a timeline of the ongoing movement to unionize journalism, particularly in the United States. Since 2015, thousands of media workers have joined the Writers Guild of America, East, branches of The NewsGuild (Communication Workers of America), and the Canadian Media Guild (CWA Canada). Journalists are organizing to improve working conditions in a tumultuous sector of the media economy. But the union drives have also had broader aims: to expand racial and gender diversity in newsrooms, to support editorial independence, to protect local journalism, and to give workers a stronger voice in their newsrooms.
On 20 September 2018, W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), an artist-initiated activist organization based in New York City, launched WAGENCY. Countering unpaid work in the arts, the WAGENCY platform gives artists digital tools to request payment for their contributions to US nonprofit galleries and museums - from a solo exhibition to an artist’s talk. “W.A.G.E. is not an artwork,” W.A.G.E. insisted when it announced WAGENCY. This refusal to be misclassified as an art project highlights W.A.G.E.’s activist intentions: to transform prevailing institutional practices through collective action. This chapter positions W.A.G.E. as an alternative worker organization - albeit one whose strategies are shaped by the specific conditions of the art field, the economic habits of which W.A.G.E. has worked for more than a decade to reform.
In mid-March of this year, 35,000-40,000 students at CÉGEPs (pre‑university and technical colleges) and universities across Quebec went on strike for a week. Unlike the 2012 strike which was led by Coalition Large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE), this year’s action was developed around a different organizing model and critique of the post-secondary education system in the province. The rebellion against tuition hikes and the theme of student debt at the heart of the 2012 strike have been replaced by a different analysis, one which places unwaged work at the center of the movement’s organizing. Inspired by the perspectives of autonomist-feminist organizers of the 1970s, the Comités Unitaires sur le Travail Étudiant (Student Work Unitary Committees, CUTE) have advanced a critique of the unwaged internships which are a key mechanism for the insertion of workers into labor markets. [...] Elizabeth Sarjeant and Enda Brophy interviewed Jeanne Bilodeau and Éloi Halloran on March …
The platforms we have surveyed here are but one piece of an emergent and highly varied set of communicative responses by workers to a new organization of labour markets, technologies, and processes. While promising in many respects, they have not yet reached the requisite scale to take part in sweeping wins for labour. All of them, however, display a common set of goals revolving around the establishment of an independent digital infrastructure for horizontal communication among workers and/or for promoting public contestation of corporate communications. As such, these labour organizing platforms have the potential to counteract the disempowering communicative logics of the labour management systems at platform companies.
Studio closures, harassment, crunch time, rumblings of unionization - game labour issues currently have unprecedented public profile. Join us at a public forum in Toronto with game developers, media work researchers, and digital labour activists to discuss working conditions and social inequalities in the video games industry and strategies to improve conditions in digital media.
Since spring 2015, journalists in almost 50 newsrooms have unionized, mostly in digital-born outlets in the United States. This “wave” of unionization, as it has been dubbed in media accounts, took many by surprise. The turn to unions also belied the popular image of digital-first media outlets like VICE and Vox: laid-back workplaces staffed by young, underpaid but happy writers, fueled by tech startups’ do-what-you-love, libertarian ethos, and housed in offices that look more like nightclubs than newsrooms. But journalists are unionizing in response to the new normal in digital media (and journalism more generally), including pressurized working conditions, precarious employment, and a lack of management transparency.
Co-ops have the potential to offer greater control over production and distribution of creative products, exactly the sort of control that many creatives want, but are told is only available to them as ‘entrepreneurs.’ They also have structural features that lead to them being better able to deliver autonomy to creatives, whilst at the same time delivering greater equality – economic and cultural - than that typically found in non-co-operative businesses. We want to challenge the dominance of the competitive, entrepreneurial model that has been central to both business support and educational provision for the creative industries, and argue that the skills of collaboration and co-operation are equally vital.
It used to be typical for mainstream media articles to endorse unpaid internships, positioning them as essential for standing out in a hyper-competitive labour market. But today, articles about internships emphasize class-based exclusion in the intern economy, challenge assumptions about meritocracy, and expose employers who break minimum wage regulations. What’s behind the pivot in public opinion that has seen internships shift from a benign rite of passage to a lightning rod workers’ rights issue? Activism. We map out the groups working to transform the politics of internships, noting how they have been able to shift mainstream media coverage of unpaid internships.
At a moment of tremendous flux in journalism, unions are trending in digital newsrooms. In June 2015, Gawker’s unionization kicked off a wave of digital media organizing. Ongoing efforts to unionize aim to improve working conditions in a growing sector of the media economy, and workers have won better pay, job security, and benefits. But union drives have also had broader aims: to support editorial freedom in an age of sponsored content, to protect and expand racial and gender diversity, and to give workers a stronger voice in their newsrooms. This timeline highlights some key moments in ongoing efforts to organize digital media.
Unions are trending in digital newsrooms. This chapter examines the campaign to unionize one workplace within an ongoing digital media organizing wave: VICE Canada, a subset of VICE Media. Our account is based on in-depth interviews with inside organizing committee members, Canadian Media Guild staff organizers, and VICE staff; a review of documents produced during the drive; and media coverage of the campaign. VICE Canada staff hoped that the union would raise and standardize pay, protect and expand racial and gender diversity and equity, and support editorial freedom.
Rather than surrender it to private business or dismiss it as a shill of neoliberal exploitation, coworking is better grasped as contested: it assists growing numbers of independent workers in navigating precarious employment. The question is whether coworking spaces can do double-duty, or, help sustain livelihoods and advance economic alternatives. One path to push back against coworking’s capture by corporate capital and to move beyond the pressures of individualisation on coworking members is co-operativism.
Informed by interviews with coworking space operators and members, this article assesses coworking as a response to precarity. We argue that social and political ambivalence is intrinsic to the culture of coworking. First, we situate coworking in a political-economic context, claiming that coworking emerged as a worker-developed response to changing economic conditions but, in its current form, is increasingly commodified and ultimately reinforces labour flexibilization. Second, we survey meanings attached to coworking, highlighting tensions between coworking’s counter-corporate identity and its recapitulation of neoliberal norms. Third, we address subjectivity formation, proposing that coworking spaces are a stage for the performance of network sociality. We conclude by considering coworking’s political potential as a platform for collective action.
Writers’ Rights provides context for freelancers’ struggles and identifies the points of contention between journalists and big business. Through interviews and a survey of freelancers, Cohen highlights the paradoxes of freelancing, which can be simultaneously precarious and satisfying, risky and rewarding. She documents the transformation of freelancing from a way for journalists to resist salaried labour in pursuit of autonomy into a strategy for media firms to intensify exploitation of freelance writers’ labour power, and presents case studies of freelancers’ efforts to collectively transform their conditions.
Any vision of sustainable prosperity must include a notion of better work, not just more work (and less unemployment) and John Bellamy Foster’s essay is to be warmly welcomed for putting the question of what constitutes ‘good work’ on the table. But I fear that by arguing – at least in part – that good work looks like creative work or artistic work, it risks perpetuating certain ideas about artistic production that will harm, rather than aid, the struggle for good work. In drawing on William Morris (and indeed Marx’s) ideas of artistic production as unalienated labour, we risk idealising a model of work which is individualistic, self-exploiting and ultimately, exclusionary.
This paper investigates the potential of worker co-operatives to help improve working conditions and radically reimagine cultural work. [...] Examining current debates on co-operatives the article explores co-ops as a radical pre-figurative political project, mobilized in a reformist attempt to create a more ethical capitalism or be integrated into neoliberal discourses of entrepreneurship and individual responsibility. It goes on to discuss the potentials and limitations of worker co-ops by looking at precariousness, inequality, and individualization of cultural sector work, arguing that radical co-ops can play an important role within a larger movement that mobilizes collectivity to confront neoliberal individualization and capitalist realism.
Amid fevered debates about the future of journalism in Canada, a union drive at Vice Canada is signalling that young journalists have a vision for digital-first media outlets – most of them branches of American-owned companies – that are growing and very profitable yet are not easy places to work. Organizing efforts by the Canadian Media Guild at Vice follow a wave of successful drives in several digital newsrooms south of the border in 2015, including Gawker, Vice, the Guardian US, Salon.com and, most recently, the Huffington Post, whose newsroom of 262 journalists makes it the largest unionized digital news staff in North America.
Drawing on interviews with worker co-operatives in the UK cultural industries, Sandoval teases out the politics of working in co-ops, and shows that, although the kinds of co-ops she is discussing tend to operate at the small-scale prefigurative level, they help open up the political spaces on which bigger political action can build - although this undoubtedly requires making connections both between individual co-ops and between co-ops and the wider left. Her conclusion is that different times require different tactics, and that, though Luxemburg would not have seen much value in co-ops solely as a form of prefigurative politics, she would have valued them if they could at the same time contribute to advancing the greater goal of building a radical alternative.
The cumulative effect of serial internships and zero-wages is the hardening of established social exclusions in the labour market, the devaluation of labour, wage depression across the labour economy, and the acclimatization of a generation of indebted workers to hustling from gig to gig with few expectations of their employers. Internships are, then, an entry point for interrogating contested conditions of life, labour, and learning at a historical moment when precarity is an encroaching structure of feeling.
A key concept in cultural labour studies is autonomy. We seek to widen and politicize the concept of autonomy to include cultural workers’ efforts to collectively exert control over the terms under which their labour power is engaged, to question the dominant organization of cultural production, to seek ways to sustain independent work by de-linking social security from standard employment, and to produce alternative systems of meaning about work. We propose three conceptual lenses for approaching research on cultural labour from worker resistance: mutual aid, or developing bottom-up infrastructures to support independent work; policy from below, or creating worker-centred policies to mitigate the precarity of non-standard work; and counter-interpellation, or building alternate vocabularies to define cultural labour that resist dominant ideological codes attached to visions of ‘creatives’ and ‘free agents’.
As media companies grow in profits and economic significance, workers in these industries are experiencing precarious forms of employment and declining union power. This article provides insight into the experiences of a growing segment of the media labour force in Canada: freelance writers, who face declining rates of pay, intensified struggles over copyright, and decreasing control over their work. At the same time, freelancers are currently experimenting with various approaches to collective organizing: a professional association, a union, and an agency-union partnership. As part of a larger project on freelance writers’ working conditions and approaches to organizing, this article provides an overview of three organizational models and raises some early questions about their implications.
Letters & Handshakes, eds. (2014) Precarious: Carole Condé + Karl Beveridge. Waterloo, ON: Robert Langen Art Gallery. Image credit: Chris Lee
Informed by a larger study on emerging precarious labour politics in creative industries, this chapter identifies and illustrates three threads of communicative activism: collective identity, counter-publicity, and networked solidarity. Collective identity concerns flexworkers’ involvement in struggles over the meaning of their employment status and the labor they perform. Counter-publicity encompasses the creation and online circulation of media that raise awareness about precarity, examples of which include intern activists’ name-and-shame social-media tactics, the leveraging of celebrity in campaigns to improve labor standards, and the staging of creative direct actions and cultural productions. Networked solidarity designates the role of the internet and other information communications technology in aggregating and supporting mutual aid among dispersed workforces. We conclude by recasting collective identity, counter-publicity, and networked solidarity as practices of autonomous communication, which contribute to the building of infrastructures of dissent in the face of spreading precarity.
This paper introduces an international inquiry into collective organization in call centres. Arguing that it offers an important test for labour recomposition in the twenty-first century, the article begins by situating the global explosion of call centre employment over the last two decades by adopting and extending political theorist Jodi Dean’s concept of ‘communicative capitalism’. Second, it surveys the dominant perspectives on the labour performed by call centre workers and introduces the autonomist concept of immaterial labour, one which encourages us to approach emergent forms of employment from the perspective of the struggles and the collective organization they produce. The paper continues with an overview of the forms of labour resistance emerging from call centres globally and concludes by offering a sketch of three of the research project’s case studies in Italy, Ireland, and Canada.
Of the vast lexicon associated with autonomist thought, two concepts—precarity and recomposition—are especially relevant to an oppositional response to the creative economy. The first part of the paper introduces a schema of precarious labour personas so to illuminate some of the multiple manifestations of labor precarity as an effect of post-Fordist exploitation. The concept of precarity is, however, more than a linguistic device highlighting labor conditions that are denied in dominant discourses on the creative economy. It also signals a promising laboratory of a recomposition of labor politics in which media and communication workers are participants. The second part of the paper therefore identifies collective responses to precarious employment, including emerging workers’ organizations and policy proposals emanating from within and beyond immaterial production milieus.
This paper argues that Marxist political economy is a useful framework for understanding contemporary conditions of cultural work. Drawing on Karl Marx’s foundational concepts, labour process theory, and a case study of freelance writers, I argue that the debate over autonomy and control in cultural work ignores exploitation in labour-capital relationships, which is a crucial process shaping cultural work. To demonstrate the benefits of this approach, I discuss two methods media firms use to extract surplus value from freelance writers: exploitation of unpaid labour time and exploitation of intellectual property through aggressive copyright regimes. I argue that a Marxist perspective can uncover the dynamics that are transforming cultural industries and workers’ experiences. From this perspective, cultural work is understood as a site of struggle.
Internships have gained critical attention in Canada, thanks largely to the efforts of intern labour activists, who have generated media coverage, lobbied and advised politicians, conducted education and outreach, and advocated for an end to the proliferation of unpaid internships in Canada. This roundtable interview with intern labour activists Ella Henry, Andrew Langille, Joshua Mandryk, and Claire Seaborn was conducted by Nicole Cohen and Greig de Peuter in Toronto on March 1, 2015. Follow up interviewing was conducted over e-mail in May 2015. The interview has been edited and condensed.
The figure of the self-reliant, risk-bearing, non-unionized, self-exploiting, always-on, flexibly employed worker in the creative industries has been positioned as a role model of contemporary capitalism. Although the notion of the model worker is a compelling critical diagnostic of the self-management of precarity in post-Fordist times, I argue that it provides an insufficient perspective on labour and the so-called creative economy to the extent that it occludes the capacity to contest among the workforces it represents. This article thematizes salient features of select collective responses to precarity that are emerging from workers in nonstandard employment in the arts, the media, and cultural industries. Collective responses to precarization in the creative industries are at risk of being overlooked if the research optic on workers’ strategies is focused upon a single sector or a particular profession.
Earlier this month, about twenty people gathered on a hot London evening at The HUB Islington for an event called “Freelancers Unite! What rights are we fighting for?” Taking inspiration from recent efforts in Berlin to ignite a freelancers’ movement, this event was part of the space’s “50 Days of Freelancing” series. Speakers gave a big-picture view of the spread of independent work and zeroed in on the flipside of making a living in a flexible labour economy. Among concerns that participants shared were clients who don’t pay, pressure to do work for free (or almost free), and uncertain access to contracts following maternity leave. One of the things that the “Freelancers Unite!” event demonstrated is that coworking spaces are promising places for gathering members of a workforce whose trademark dispersal can make it tricky to reflect—and act—on livelihood issues collectively.
“Fuck your unpaid internship.” This was one of the more colourful slogans scrawled on a sign at the peak of the Occupy movement. Held up by young people who stand to lose large from financial-crisis fallout, placards like these are refreshingly frank refusals of the mantra that we must be willing to do “more for less” nowadays. A 21st-century update on Bartleby’s famous reply to the duties assigned by his boss – “I’d prefer not to” – the intern invective expresses the frustration bubbling among youth facing mounting student debt and diminishing prospects for employment.
This article sets out to both illuminate the precarious conditions of nonstandard workers in New York’s vaunted creative sectors and identify emerging collective responses to precarity in this city. Three areas of labour activity are focused upon: fashion industry frictions, art world agitations, and independent worker initiatives. Under each of these headings, the article profiles two organizations that are variously exposing, resisting, and mitigating precarity among flexible labour forces in the arts, the media, cultural industries, and beyond. Challenging the assumption that getting by in informal cultural labour markets obliges individual coping strategies, this article reveals scenes from a metropolitan laboratory of precarious labour politics. These initiatives are inklings of a recomposition of labour politics in which flexible workforces in creative industries are important participants.
Working as a model has always seemed to promise a lifestyle of fame, fortune, and luxury. Remember supermodel Linda Evangelista’s famous quip, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”? The Model Alliance aims to disrupt these superficial assumptions and expose the decidedly less glamorous aspects of modelling, which are deeply tied to issues of workers’ rights. The Model Alliance is a non-profit labour organization founded by model Sara Ziff, who after co-directing the 2010 documentary Picture Me, decided it was time to do something about the labour challenges models face. […] In December 2011, Ziff was interviewed by Greig de Peuter. They spoke about working conditions, organizing strategies, and the challenge of making concrete change in an industry built on images.
If you’re among those who regularly shell out the equivalent of office rent at coffee shops to get a bit of work done, it’s easy to imagine a typical scene at The Common, a café in Toronto’s west end. Located in MP Andrew Cash’s Davenport riding, The Common was an apt venue for the NDP politico’s launch of his Urban Worker Strategy campaign in May. Working in a flexible labour market brings challenges bigger than snagging a spot to plug in your laptop, which is why Cash is presenting a more comprehensive response. Cash’s approach – working through the state to secure a better deal for precarious workers – is at odds with neoliberalism’s preferred qualities: high self-reliance and low expectations from employers and the state. The Urban Worker campaign zooms in on policy, a mostly invisible yet materially significant social frame that enables or constrains our livelihoods.
Crunching numbers during a marathon board meeting lacks the drama of an artist reclaiming his sculpture from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Takis’s heist, which in 1969 inaugurated the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), is not entirely disconnected from the budgeting policies developed by the activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). The group’s project – to certify non-profit art institutions that pay artist fees – is informed by lessons from the AWC archives, some of which, incidentally, are today housed at MoMA. The short-lived AWC and its disparate supporters voiced a multitude of demands, ranging from better representation of artists of colour to making museum admission free and extending artists’ control over the exhibition of their work. W.A.G.E.’s gambit focuses on one specific goal: getting artists paid.
In May of 2012, cultural workers in Milan occupied an abandoned 31-storey skyscraper in the northern part of the city. Named MACAO, the new space was intended to give workers in Milan’s creative industries a space in which to pursue their labour without being subject to the finnancial austerity and precarious working and existential conditions gripping the city’s cultural sector. Cultural Workers Organize interviewed one of the workers in the organizing group, Emanuele Braga, shortly after the occupation to find out more about this audacious collective gesture.
This article considers the growing convergence between labor and communication in the digital economy. Taking the rapid growth of call center employment as its focus, the article argues that the approach taken by the political and theoretical tradition of post-operaismo, or autonomist Marxism, has produced promising encounters between labor activism and communication inquiry. Through its theory of cognitive capitalism and its focus on labor resistance, the article suggests, post-operaismo offers communication scholars a set of tools through which to move beyond the limits of both liberal-democratic theories of the knowledge worker and Marxist labor process theory.
Toronto-based visual artists Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge are internationally known for their staged photography rooted in workers’ experiences, labour struggles, and social movements. Condé and Beveridge’s work, a critical response to unfettered capitalism and ecological crisis, includes such recent pieces as Scene Otherwise (2012), a photomontage based on the Occupy encampment in Toronto; Precarious (2010), a series addressing unstable employment among college support staff; The Plague (2009), a tableau of the recurrent convulsions of finance capital set in a quintessential space of flows, an airport terminal; and Fall of Water (2006–2007), a photographic epic, based on Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall Of The Rebel Angels that depicts the planetary water crisis and the political conflicts surrounding it.