Could an Artists' Union Occupy L.A.?

Photo: Liz Goetz.

Los Angeles artists have been aware of the specific conditions constraining their collective fiscal well-being. Starving artist is not a new term, long before the Occupy Movement showed up on City Hall's doorstep. But Occupy spawned an intensification of the desire to find form to address these conditions.

On Saturday, Oct 1, 2011 a cardboard-covered building was constructed on the south lawn of L.A. City Hall; a modified double A-frame held together with scavenged wooden beams nailed together on the grass. A medium-sized box was placed on the shack's roof to serve as a beacon. The simple box transformed the thing; the extra height making it appear just that much more significant. From its perch, and in hot pink fluorescent spray-paint, the words "Union Hall" called out to the gathering 99% occupying downtown L.A. Though the building was improvisatory, the structure's relative visibility attracted attention. As it stood there, passersby added there own written words to the cardboard walls with paint, pens, and stickers: "let's do this," "choose to educate the uneducated," "occupy," "get the word out," "make art not war." While the assemblage's multiple messages could have been deemed relatively incoherent, the message of the structure of a union hall itself was unmistakable: "workers of the new creative economy find solidarity."

Like the metaphor of flotsam, over the subsequent months and past the clearance of the City Hall park by LAPD, many sheets of cardboard have floated through the lawns; each sheet offering a voice to the many people seeking form to their outrage against banks, laws, governments, and society.

The artists collective Cake and Eatit were responsible for putting together that union hall downtown. Perhaps gifted with second-sight, members of that collective had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union in May, 2011. They'd imagined that the irregular nature of artists labor could find power if organized through the famously irregular wobbly IWW union.

Along with a few of their IWW comrades, I and other artists milling around pitched in to raise the hall together. The first day of Occupy L.A. was undeniably fertile. But leaving that evening, I was equally enraptured by the idea of the structure I'd pitched in to set-up: a federation of L.A. artists.

A union. The image has two meanings, one of them significantly warmer than the next. The first talks of a consecrated gathering held within a deeply loved embrace. The second talks about the rules, regulations, and bureaucracy guiding the decisions by which this matrimony proceeds copacetically into the world. As of late 2011, and continuing up till recently, some members of L.A.'s art community have been meeting twice monthly to plan out the form of what a union could look like. The meeting I went to was held at the Brewery's Raid Projects space. It was a cold night and I came from my car to a room full of 20 or so mostly young artists. Somebody had organized the group to make a pot of stone soup together: vegetable, of course. Sipping a bowl, I listened in on the conversation. It wandered around the topic of creative collaborations. The goal of this Artists Union meeting didn't appear to "striking to demand higher fees for adjunct art teachers" or "the adoption of the Canadian system of mandatory payment for artist's presentation, known as CARFAC" (this was discussed other times), but more "in what manner can we be together, here in L.A.?"

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A meeting of the Los Angeles Art Union | Courtesy of The Art Union.
A meeting of the Los Angeles Art Union | Courtesy of The Art Union.   

Since my visit L.A.'s Art Union has accomplished two things:

1) Practiced and schemed forms of mutual aid. They've helped each other on their own art projects. They've gathered tools for a shared tool library. They've researched and gathered funds for what they hope will be an actual union hall. It will be something roughly akin to a multi-use center.

2) Agreed upon an organizational framework. It exists as a flow chart depicting what they hope is a non-coercive decision making process between diverse peers.

This list of accomplishments could be poo-pooed as a form of social art gone pedantic. New York City has a vibrant and outwardly focused group of organized artists regularly conceiving political actions to advance the struggle for economic justice amongst artists. This group, Occupy Wall Street Arts and Labor, has been involved in political actions at several of New York's museums in support of the Art Handlers union picket of Sotheby's. They participated creatively in New York's Mayday celebrations. And they've addressed the unfair nature of unpaid internships in New York's economy. However members of Occupy Wall Street Arts and Labor have expressed respect for L.A. artists working towards a union. That a medium sized gathering of L.A.-based artist has committed themselves to the slow process of considering a structure for political agency is meaningful. But the question remains: is L.A. is ready for a union made up of artists? As one member of the Art Union group pointed out to me, artists, unlike traditional workers, generally don't have bosses.

Recent Los Angeles transplant A.L. Steiner wonders what an LA artist union should look like. In New York, Steiner is a part of the collective Working Artists In the Greater Economy or W.A.G.E. Her group recently put out a research study that sought to answer the question "Are (contemporary) artists being paid? If yes, then how much?" The answers: some artists working in New York's non-profit spaces aren't getting paid. If they are, it's not much. Steiner's group W.A.G.E. has developed a basic proposal from this survey- artist working with art spaces with an annual operating budget must be paid a fee. But Steiner notes that this demand for payment for work done is controversial even amongst her own group. Not only are artists lead to believe that their creativity is a unique form of individual expression, artists are taught that both creative and economic capital have value. So taking any kind of collective stand can be difficult.

Steiner notes that Los Angeles' arts community is not New York. She suggests that New York is dominated by the commercial or the non-profit sector. She suggests this creates a divided "class structure". She notes that LA's art community is more egalitarian with more artist run spaces, and "here it's more integrated. Less people are showing and less people are getting more hard capital," she says. "In L.A., though there is more innovation though in how places are run. Here there is less of a pressure. There is less of a market value placed here."

Steiner wonders if an artists union could adequately address the needs for L.A.'s artists, if such needs could be popularly accessed (Does Los Angeles have similar issues regarding artist compensation?). However, "the strength of the group is in its grass roots structure," she says. "It is people claiming grounds for different ways of working in the art community. Their goal thus far has been to set up a structure that represents lots of different opinions and perspectives with the ability to respond to these different perspectives."

To date L.A.'s nascent Art Union hasn't tried to collectively bargaining on behalf of any of its members. It hasn't sought support for an agreed upon action from the wider L.A. art community either. But the recently agreed upon decision making framework was specifically created with this kind of difficult undertaking in mind. A L.A. Union member has described the affiliation as a "solidarity group." He and others involved with the Artists Union referenced to me their families' positive association with workers' unions. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in these uncertain economic times, artists are seeking out the embrace of solidarity whatever it may bring.


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Top Image: Up The Art Union Hall at Occupy LA, City Hall, 10/1/11. Photo by Liz Goetz.

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