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How can teaching artists organize power?

On June 1, I attended Organizing Power: Unions + Art/Nonprofit Workers curated by Jessalyn Aaland. This exhibit and event was a part of YBCA’s Public Square, a full museum experience showcasing the YBCA Fellows’ year long projects through workshops, visual and performance art, dance, music, and more. Organizing Power, along with about half of the exhibits in the Public Square, engaged the central question, “how might we re-imagine political power?” According to Jessalyn, one approach to this question, and the aim of this particular event, was “to give art workers, and all workers, the tools they need to form unions if they choose to do so.”

From the Organizing Power booklet

You can find Jessalyn Aaland’s review of the event, pictures, and download link to a free pdf version of the full Organizing Power booklet here.

Community organizing and political power were alive and well that sunny Saturday in San Francisco. Just outside our window, Sunrise Movement Bay Area, donning bright yellow and hoisting an eye-catching gold and orange fabric bird, demanded a Green New Deal outside the California Democratic Convention. At the same time, vegans and animal rights activists marched down Mission Street in clouds of pink banners. Chants of “animal liberation now” drifted two stories up to softly pound through our gallery windows lined with artwork from the Oakland teachers’ strike. Immersed in this vibrant, singing exhibit of people power, we dove into the question of why and how art workers should unionize.

“All organizing is the same and all organizing is different”

The first panel discussion provided a framework for understanding the national labor movement and why unions are necessary. The talk featured Fred Glass, labor activist, CCSF educator, and author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement who presented 10 key moments in labor history and Peter Olney, former Organizing Director, ILWU who broke down the two necessary components of a successful unionizing campaign: heat and hammer.

You can watch the full talk below.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights:

  • Labor history is intentionally kept from the people. If we knew that history, we would be more united and aware of our power.

  • Unions are like any tool: they can be used well, badly, or not at all.

  • Last year showed the biggest jump in protest hours since 1980s!

  • The two necessary components for a successful unionizing campaign are heat and hammer.

    • “Heat” refers to the commitment, desire, and motivation workers need to face employers throughout a difficult process. Unionizing requires sustained time and energy and can cost people their jobs or livelihoods. Without heat to keep workers engaged and committed, a successful movement will be impossible.

      • The heat has to come from a committed core group of organizers within; t cannot be a paid staffer from an outside organization. This “militant minority” needs to come up with solid issues that will motivate the majority of workers. The issues that often drive successful unionizing are the needs for better pay, benefits, or human dignity.

  • “Hammer” refers to the leverage you bring to bear against your employer. It’s the way you will put pressure on the employer to the point where they conclude, “I have to deal with these workers.” This involves drumming up community support and relationships as well as understanding the political power points of arts/ nonprofit workers.

  • In the arts, a driving factor of heat is recognition of great and growing economic inequality. Something will light the match at some point, and we need to recognize when that happens.

“We don’t debate pros and cons because there are no cons to forming a union”

The second panel discussion featured Matt Kennedy, CCA union organizing committee member, telling the story of how California College of the Arts (CCA) workers successfully formed a union. Then Nat Naylor, OPEIU Local 29 union organizer, provided information for organizers from a professional union perspective about how to get started.

You can watch the full talk below.

A few highlights (though I highly recommend listening to both of the full talks - there’s lots of tips, tricks, and history to pick up!):

  • Start building power “underground” first. Once your campaign goes public, it changes the nature of your organizing and opens you up to pushback from the administration.

  • So much of the work is relationship and trust building through one on one conversations. Matt learned that a helpful ratio for having these conversations was spending 80% of the time listening and 20% of the time talking. Ask folks if they think things will change and how. Many folks don’t have any idea what to do. Part of the work is getting your colleagues to see change as a real possibility.

  • When you get people to realize that their labor is their leverage, they don’t feel powerless (it’s important to flip this switch!)

  • If you can find 1-2 people that agree with you, you’re on your way. Just start talking to people!

  • Many folks will act like the nature of your work is compensation enough, but remember: psychic benefits don’t pay wages.

  • Check out the step by step process for how to organize a union in the Organizing Power booklet here

What about teaching artists organizing across different organizations/ employers? Is there union hope for those of us contracting with multiple organizations?

Go to 23:10 for Nat Naylor’s answer to this question. Essentially, yes! You can meet with a union and start an association. The first step to do this would be to gather all of your colleagues together (or as many as possible) that are working at 2-4 different organizations and start talking about forming an association. Then you can work on figuring out which union is the best home for that association. After that, you can work on getting that union to reach out to those employers.

Tune in at 31:27 to hear some of Matt’s and Nat’s favorite tactics, which of course, employ creativity and art making.

Other resources and recommendations:

  • Freelancers Union is the largest and fast-growing organization representing the 57 million independent workers across the country. We give our 375,000+ members a powerful voice through policy advocacy, benefits, and community.

  • The Freelancers Union FB group is also a good place for teaching artists to start to plug into local conversations about unionizing.

  • Keep an eye on other sectors that habitually hire contract labor. For example, Lyft and Uber drivers’ efforts to unionize is an important fight to watch.

As artists, we are no strangers to shifting perspectives and moving spirits. Our work, driven by love, truth, and liberation for all, reflects the world as we experience it and guides audiences to imagine visionary possibilities. We already have all the superpowers we need to organize our colleagues for conditions that honor our labor. Let us continue the work of “making the revolution irresistible” by creating art that conjures beautiful futures and moves people to manifest them. And let’s get paid fairly while doing it.


Natasha Huey is currently an Artist Mentor at Performing Arts Workshop, co-founder of The Root Slam, and co-founder of the Write Home Project.

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