I will never forget a discussion I had last year. A friend of mine was discussing socialism, a word that he admitted was new to his lips. He was explaining why he was a socialist and why Bernie Sanders needed to be president. In response, I mentioned that Hillary Clinton had more support from organized labor and I asked, “how do we reconcile that? How can our socialist flag-bearer not have labor behind him?”
My friend, without a blink, or trace of sarcasm asked me, “Who cares? What do unions have to do with socialism?” My eyes rolled with a weight I had never experienced.
I am beyond excited at the level at which social democracy is freely discussed in our political discourse. I know so many people my age (30) and younger who have come to accept, learn, and proselytize these ideas in a truly impressive way. It is exciting. It is also a little scary. Just like any ideology, it dies without a sense of unity (and probably a sense of history).
Our generation comes with some unique factors. Everything is commoditized. You can make a living sitting on your couch, with a cell phone and a car, or with whatever combination of twenty-first century niceties we have around us. Don’t forget the artists, the academics, and the professional helpers (activists, advocates, etc.) It seems difficult to connect a party line based on labor to the modern workforce, but it must be done.
The sad fact is, most socialists I have met in the last couple of years have been artists (of all varieties), adjuncts, non-profit workers, part-time retail associates (often with multiple jobs), and low-level corporate managers. Meanwhile, labor elected Donald Trump.
So, what do we artists, independent workers, and people-centered workers do? There are options. In grad school, I was a GTA, while also working in various settings, providing Drama Therapy services to children. In total, I worked four jobs. I found the Freelancers Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org). While they might not appear to be a formal labor union, they boast 350,000 members under the motto: “Independents. United.”
They will help get you health insurance and they will get you connected with groups of workers who are living just like you. Architects, bloggers, designers…pretty much any profession that works independently, or anyone who is working more than one job is considered a freelancer. They have rallied and fought alongside other unions and are making quite a name for themselves.
I graduated with my masters and found employment at a non-profit agency that helps survivors of domestic and sexual violence. My union membership does not come from this job (though I am often caught whispering a Draper quote, or a Seeger lyric into my co-workers’ ears) but, these unions do exist.
To some, it seems selfish. If your job is about helping people, why would you unionize? The clients come first!
Of course, the clients come first. However, my line of work is rife with burnout. Non-profits in the human services world experience extremely high turnover. You cannot put a price on helping those who need it, but that does not mean that you should be taken advantage of. Everyone deserves free time. Everyone deserves to be safe. Everyone deserves to have their voices heard. This is why workers with the IFPTE, Local 70 (http://ifptelocal70.org/home/), the SEIU (http://www.seiu.org) and so many, many others have come together.
When I am not working as advocate, I am writing. I am currently a member of the National Writers Union (https://nwu.org). We are officially local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. There are 12 internal branches of the union and their activity ranges from defending free speech, mobilizing for any political activity that threatens our work, and providing legal assistance to writers when their contracts aren’t being honored.
The first story I ever sold was for $4 and a contributors’ copy. I didn’t get it. I know that a check for $4 and a magazine worth $10 doesn’t sound like a lot, but that is not the point. My work has value. The publisher made money off of it, so should I. If I had been aware of the NWU back then, they could have helped. Of course, there are many options for any creative workers out there.
Navigating the labor world is complicated. If a movement toward a social democracy is based in the labor movement, we need to organize. Before we do, we need to accept a few things:
We creative types do not perform blue collar work. No matter how grim our background, or how much sweat we conjure over our manuscripts and canvases, this remains a fact. I am the first person in my family to finish high school and I worked (and borrowed) my way through college. It’s hard. I get it. No one is saying art is not important. It is essential! However, without the mills and textile plants, our creative vision would remain in our heads.
Our work has value. There are also many ways we get paid: money, contributors’ copies, access to resources, etc. A deal is a deal. There is nothing glamorous in being taken advantage of. Protecting your work from a corporate interest is not selling out. They will make money whether you do, or not. If I never sold a story again, I would keep writing. However, if I do sell a story and they don’t pay me, I will demand what I was promised.
Make sure your work does not come at the cost of others. Your great, new, technologically advanced, well-intentioned idea is sometimes all it takes to push a fellow worker out into the cold.
If for no other reason than to meet like-minded people, organize. Protect your work and the work of others. Fight for what is fair, fight for what you deserve. It must remain that (much to my friend’s surprise) unions have everything to do with socialism.