Instituting Change: Teaching Artists As Activists

by Kathy Creutzburg 

I read an article recently in the New York Times about a UCLA listing for a doctorate adjunct professor to teach a class for $0.  I am not surprised that teaching artists face similar issues of exploitation regarding low pay and workplace inadequacies. Isolated workers in academic fields, including teaching artists, have next to no leverage when it comes to wages and benefits when they act individually.

Living wages may seem out of reach regardless of institutional wealth. However, fundraising targets made by institutions employing teaching artists could be applied to paying their staff higher salaries and setting reasonable working standards. Achieving this requires interconnected worker vigilance: What does solidarity mean and how is it achieved? How do you connect peers working independently?

Lessons from outside of the teaching artist profession are clear. Christian Smalls, Interim Acting President, and  Derrick Palmer, Vice President of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island, NY shared their unionizing strategies publicly

Teaching artists and support workers who are employees have the right to form a union in order to bargain for and codify their rates of pay, benefits, and workplace conditions. “The union” is explicitly the workers themselves.

A union files a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, “NLRB.” The NLRB is a federal agency that administers the formal union election process. When a group of workers wins an election, they gain a democratic voice in setting their wages and working conditions. By unionizing, workers earn the legal right to bargain collectively over wages, benefits, and workplace conditions.

As a group, a union has more leverage to push for sustainable conditions for everyone. Unions bargain with management to develop a legally binding contract that is enforced through the grievance process. In right to work states, each worker decides whether or not to pay union dues even though a collective bargaining agreement covers all workers.

It takes only two employees to form a union. The challenge for workers is creating open communication among themselves during the organizing process, and then sustaining worker investment as the voting process is underway. Keeping all of the participants informed of the facts requires an assertive and dedicated group of organized workers. After winning an election, workers may include flexibility clauses that are favorable to the teaching artists and support staff themselves in their proposal. Organizations often hire 1099 teaching artist contract workers to maintain management control and flexibility on their terms. But in this case, the contract worker retains the copyright to their own work.

Coming Soon: Union Spirit and Independent Artists by Kathy Creutzburg



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