The Push to Unionize Art and Culture Work in Canada
by Maya Wilson-Sanchez
Finding good employment in the art world has never been easy. Short-term contracts that rely on grants, donations, or special temporary projects are often the norm. The framing of arts work as a passion, together with job scarcity and insecurity, creates the best conditions for exploitation. Following long-standing attempts to promote the understanding that arts work is work, developments in the last few years have opened up new and renewed questions around labour issues and how to tackle them.
Many of my peers and I are disappointed to see how art institutions develop Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies that may change their subject matter or programming, but have little to no effect on their work culture nor toward fair compensation, job security, and better working conditions. If DEI policies don’t create workplaces where workers—especially BIPOC or other equity-seeking workers—are valued, fairly compensated, and treated well, then what are they there for? I really can’t think of anti-oppression work as being separate from labour issues, although that is how they are usually presented.
Though these issues have plagued the art world for decades, the pandemic brought them to the surface. Many of us were laid off while others were asked to work in unsafe conditions. A lot of us were angry and scared—and some of us were able to ask for, fight for, or at least imagine something different, something better. In 2020, these sentiments included calls for universal or guaranteed basic income that manifested in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by hundreds of art workers and organizations, and an announcement supporting it written by the presidents, CEOs, and executive directors of the Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg art councils published in The Globe and Mail. Advocating for living wages, rather than just minimum wages, has also gained traction, with multiple living wage networks now across Canada that offer certification for employers that pay living wages.
Another approach was forming unions. Recently the Toronto Star reported that for the first time in decades, there is a slight increase in the percentage of unionized workers in Canada,1 with union representatives noting that they’re getting more calls.2 Many of the people I’ve spoken to about unions mention that it’s a good way to get a seat at the table, especially for non-salaried or front-facing workers (where the most BIPOC employees tend to be concentrated). For others, forming a union was one step closer to dismantling the power structures within the art world. I spoke with individuals from two unions that were formed during the pandemic: Jonny Sopotiuk, the president of the Vancouver-based Arts and Cultural Workers Union (ACWU), and a group of past and present employees of The Power Plant in Toronto who contributed to a successful unionizing effort last year. (In light of the fact that they are still in the midst of negotiating their first collective agreement, C and I have respected their request to keep their identities anonymous.) Among other gains, this work toward improving labour conditions came from a genuine place of caring for this field— caring for its future and in creating fair, equitable, and sustainable conditions so that we can keep doing this work, and doing it better.
MWS: Why did you start a union?
Jonny Sopotiuk: We started the ACWU as a community organizing project to address precarity and exploitation in the arts. I had seen too many friends abandon their arts practices after graduating. They couldn’t make a living in Metro Vancouver. High rents and a lack of accessible studio space are endemic here. Even the artists who took on jobs with arts organizations struggled to balance their practice and work. A small group of four of us came together to create change. Over time, our founding team grew to eight and then to 17.
MWS: How did you start? And why did you choose to work with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union in New York City?
JS: It started out as a lot of one-on-one conversations over coffee and food. We started holding monthly and then biweekly planning meetings online, in galleries, and in our living rooms. We had incredible conversations about labour, work, quality of life, politics, solidarity, community, and mutual aid. We debated arts practice and the definition of an artist. After a year of meetings, we founded two sibling organizations: the ACWU, which is an independent union, and the Vancouver Arts Labour Union Cooperative (VALU CO-OP). After we founded the ACWU, we connected with an organizer from IATSE Canada; we picked IATSE because of their expertise in the film and theatre sectors, and they supported our development with staff time and access to lawyers. We knew we wanted to develop a portable extended benefits plan for artists. We met with IATSE reps for over a year, originally discussing an affiliation, but in January 2020, IATSE invited us to become full members and chartered our very own local in BC. Our founding members voted unanimously to join, and our charter arrived from New York City in March.
MWS: You’re both a union and a democratically run workers cooperative. Can you tell me more about why having a co-op model is important to you?
JS: The co-op takes the union a step further. We’re creating a space where our members run the workplace. They get to make the decisions that impact their lives, careers, working conditions, and enjoyment at work. So many arts organizations replicate the top-down hierarchical corporate culture of business. Although they’re value-driven organizations, we see abuse of arts workers in all sizes of organizations. We believe all workers deserve and need a union, and that many small arts organizations are better suited for a cooperative governance model that provides proper compensation.
MWS: After you received your union charter in February 2020, what happened?
JS: We received a start-up loan, established our constitution and by-laws, opened a bank account, and elected an interim executive. We held monthly meetings and created our first collective agreement for members working through VALU. And then we turned our attention to helping grow the cooperative and connecting with other arts workers in BC.
MWS: You’re based in Vancouver, and your union covers all of British Columbia. You’ve already had major successes; in July 2020, the workers of the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) in Vancouver voted unanimously to join the union. Do you have plans to expand and cover the rest of Canada?
JS: After we launched, we received inquiries from workers at other arts organizations in BC who wanted to know more about our organizing work and the role of a union in small arts organizations. We held meetings and responded to inquiries and over the year we saw workers at five arts organizations unanimously vote to join the ACWU.
Gallery Gachet workers led the way, which resulted in our union getting formal recognition at the Labour Relations Board; workers at the CAG, CARFAC BC, Cineworks, and Love Intersections all joined shortly after. We’ve supported those workers in bargaining their first agreements and have seen considerable improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions. The lowest paid worker at CAG saw a 42 percent increase in their base pay!
Our focus right now is on supporting our members in BC and building an accountable and responsive union structure. We’re also currently working with artists in Calgary, Toronto, Halifax, Los Angeles, New York City, and elsewhere to expand or support their local organizing projects.
MWS: Why did you start a union at The Power Plant (TPP)?
The Power Plant Workers: There had been chatter about unionization over the years, so the desire really came from a series of issues that had been accumulating for a long time. The pandemic was the catalyst for us to come together and start organizing, since the non-salaried employees had been furloughed when the gallery closed in March 2020. Those who remained employed and working from home were constantly asked to take on more tasks and more responsibilities that were often outside the purview of their job, without additional compensation, training, or sufficient resources. We all felt devalued and overworked.
There are many highly skilled and qualified employees among us, with varying degrees of education and unique professional experiences, working for well under liveable wages. It is common knowledge that [TPP] wages are among the lowest in Toronto for the same or comparable jobs. Stagnant wages and the rising cost of living are common issues across industries, and as inequity was instantly laid bare by the pandemic, we believed in doing our part to hold the arts and culture sector accountable. We wanted some tools, support, and resources so that we could advocate for our needs and rights as arts workers. We also wanted the formal opportunity for financial transparency from the institution.
The union came from a deep commitment to our work. Workers have a stake in the institutions where they are employed, and they want to see these institutions do better, reflect their mandates, and create conditions for all of their employees to succeed and thrive.
MWS: How did you and other non-salaried employees at TPP start the union?
TPPW: The [early part of the] process made us realize that some issues were pervasive across departments; we wanted to bring all non-managerial staff together, i.e., front-of-house, installation, and office workers. We started by organizing a meeting outside of work hours to discuss whether being part of a union was something the staff would support, and the answer was a resounding yes. Then we began holding regular meetings to research the process, since we had little prior knowledge on the matter. We read over existing bargaining agreements at various institutions across Ontario, which are accessible online, comparing them and picking out clauses and protections we found appealing, such as health care coverage, overtime pay on holidays, vacations and leaves of absence, paid sick days that if not used could be cashed out, and even RRSP contributions being topped up by employers. None of these are particularly outlandish, but they have been made to feel like a luxury for many of us and generated a lot of excitement. Reviewing them allowed us to imagine financial security. We slowly reached out to trusted staff one by one and identified those we thought wouldn’t be supportive. This was nerve-racking, but surprisingly much easier than we imagined. We proceeded to reach out to the unions that represented the strongest collective agreements. In the end we chose the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) because of their impressive history of organizing within institutions of this scale and larger, and for having the lowest union dues based on gross pay.
Anyone interested in unionizing should know that it poses a risk until the vote goes through and you are certified. Trust is very important, as is keeping the process before the vote confidential. Despite the risks, the promise of better working conditions was worth it. After the hardships of the past few years, we suddenly felt heartened and invigorated. It forged stronger relationships between us. We acknowledge that it takes time and effort to organize, and we certainly benefited from having time off due to the pandemic.
MWS: What happened after the vote?
TPPW: OPSEU publicly announced our union forming, and that the vote was unanimous—we hope that this initiative might encourage other cultural workers to do the same in their respective workplaces.
We expected challenges, particularly because of the pandemic, but we have continued to be patient when it comes to the next steps. We’ve elected a bargaining team and await the creation of our first collective agreement [with TPP]. We have up to a year to bargain; it can be a slow process.
MWS: What role do you think unions can play in improving working conditions in the Canadian art world?
TPPW: We see unions as a way to demand accountability and establish more equitable structures within institutions. The problems that we are trying to address are not unique to TTP, they are widespread in the art world. We are often told that non-profit organizations are by definition financially precarious; however, the risk and burden posed by a lack of funding shouldn’t fall on the workers who sustain them. Precarity should not be an excuse not to pay employees a liveable wage. We did this not just for our own benefit but for future employees.
Workers should understand the power they hold collectively, and that creating structural change is attainable. For us, unionizing serves a larger purpose. We hope that in the future this initiative can inspire a Canada-wide support network for cultural workers, art administrators, and artists to have formal processes to advocate for our needs and rights.