Illustration by Erik Carter

This article originally ran in Eye on Design magazine issue #01. It’s being published online as part of a larger initiative around designers and workplace rights. RSVP to join us on Thursday, June 28 for our first workshop event: an evening of ideas and action aimed at establishing a new, fair, open, and inclusive system that addresses the unmet professional needs of visual designers.

“You look around and it’s hard to find real full-time work anymore. How do people expect you to make it?” said Linda Borucki, a part-time worker for the past 13 years. Fellow part-timer Laura Piscotti put it more bluntly: “These companies all have a formula. They don’t take you on full-time. They don’t pay benefits. Then their profits go through the roof.”

While both statements could easily have been made by designers working today, Borucki and Piscotti were members of the Teamsters union during the 1997 UPS strike, which went down as one of the most significant strikes in American history. It took place during the supposed economic boom of the Clinton administration, yet despite the president’s vow to help the working class, “he broke every major promise to the labor movement and regularly used his authority to prevent workers from striking.” From 1993 to 1995, more than 8.5 million people lost their jobs as a result of corporate downsizing and mergers. Clinton’s first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, later admitted the White House “collaborated [with] and responded to the business community.” Sure, there was a boom for Wall Street, but as Newsweek noted in 1996, “The public is scared as hell.” But they weren’t powerless; there was one large organization on the workers’ side that knew how to talk down corporate bullies and lobby in D.C. for legislative change.

More recently David Weil, the former administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division under President Obama, noted some eerily similar economic trends. Today, a growing number of companies are cutting costs by using contract workers, whose rights to fair wages and overtime compensation are more likely to be violated than those of their full-time counterparts. Data from the Freelancers Union (which, confusingly, isn’t technically a union) indicates that this shift toward “alternative work arrangements” means that as many as 55 million people or one-third of the U.S. workforce is made up of freelancers and independent contractors. And we can expect it to increase to 50% in just two more years.

If that number seems high, consider that in 1996 two-thirds of UPS’ quickly expanding workforce was part-time, with a staggering 83% of new jobs going to part-timers. Meanwhile, UPS was reporting profits of over $1 billion, a company record it was expecting to beat in 1997. And yet its part-timers hadn’t seen a pay raise since the ’80s; wages were still hovering around $8/hour. There were other grievances, too, such as the lack of job security and a pension plan that UPS was threatening to dip into. By the summer of 1997, with union negotiations going nowhere, 185,000 Teamsters across the country decided to go on strike.

For nearly three weeks, they hoisted picket signs painted with slogans like “UPS means Under-Paid Slaves” and “Part-time America won’t work.” Packages piled up in warehouses around the country, and other carriers couldn’t keep up with the overflow. Support from the media, the public, and other unions poured in.

“The rally felt like being at a revival—a revival for the entire, long-beleaguered U.S. labor movement. . . It was the biggest multi-racial strike in a generation that traversed what we now call the ‘Blue State-Red State’ divide.”

After UPS lost approximately $800 million, it begrudgingly agreed to create 10,000 full-time jobs, authorize the largest wage increase in the company’s history, offer protection against subcontracting union jobs, and promise to leave the full-time pension fund in tact. It was a huge, hard-won victory, but it didn’t exactly make life easier for the union. As he walked out of their final talks, the UPS chief negotiator whispered to the union leader, “You’re dead. . . and you will pay for this, you son of a bitch.”

To be fair, many union negotiations are civil and handled by the book, but it’s the heated and dramatic conflicts that make history—and history has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Take our friends in the parcel and shipping industry. You think they’ve learned anything from the UPS strike? At the time of publication, Amazon was being sued by contract drivers who want employee status, and FedEx just went through a round of similar lawsuits that cost it almost $250 million.

Now that the gig economy is bringing issues like fair wages, benefits, and job security to a head across many industries, workers in every sector, from Teamsters to the tech industry, are making a case for better employment packages, and employers are finally starting to respond. Design, and any industry where designers work—media, advertising, publishing—is next in line.

It’s not about quelling the demands of independent contractors while giving preferential treatment and heaps of benefits to full-timers and full-timers only. It’s not about fighting against the freelance business model, either. It’s not even always about fighting the unions—it’s about new competition, too. There are just too many other companies offering a quality work experience for full-timers, part-timers, and gig-workers alike for anyone to accept a raw deal anymore. That means the bargaining power is shifting to the workers, but their efforts are scattered at best.

Rather than try to patch up the inevitable splintering of the workforce ad hoc or force an outdated union model to work, might it not be a better use of our time, and in our best interest, to find a way to offer benefits and simply protect people who work, no matter where, when, how often, or what they’re called? As problem solvers personally invested in this problem, might not designers be best suited to solve it?

Illustration by Erik Carter

This isn’t as idealistic as it seems. Weil, of the Obama administration, is a fan of portable benefits that would essentially follow a worker wherever they go. He’s also optimistic that such a proposal could win bipartisan Congressional support and even improve the president’s approval rating. “If the president is serious about fighting for these workers, I would hope he and his appointees would take on these causes in a creative way that ultimately gets back to the principles of protecting workers in a way our laws have always stated,” he said in an interview with Fast Company.

As quickly as the labor force has changed in recent years, it’s only going to keep changing. As soon as 2030, we can apparently expect AI to comprise a whopping 50% of the workforce. Whether that happens or not, one thing that’s clear is the way we classify workers will become outdated almost as soon as we can all agree on terms. If we apply obsolete rules to this new workforce, then the 55 million freelancers of today will become the hundreds of millions of beleaguered, lawsuit-threatening strikers of tomorrow. It’s vital for both workers and the companies they work for to be protected. While forming a union might not be the best option for the design industry, there’s certainly a lot designers can learn from what the union model gets right and what it gets wrong.

The first surprising lesson? Unions aren’t as outmoded as you might think. When digital writers at VICE, MTV, HuffPost, Gizmodo, and The Intercept recently sought higher wages, editorial protections, and benefits for part-time workers, they joined the Digital Writers Union in partnership with the Writers Guild of America East (WGA-E) and used the power of collective bargaining. “People were fed up and broke and anxious about the future, and the union gave them a way to take control and force things to change,” said Kim Kelly, an editor for VICE’s music and culture site, Noisey, in an interview with the New York Times.

The WGA-E’s executive director, Lowell Peterson, recognizes that while unions carry negative baggage for an older generation familiar with the highly publicized stories of corrupt leaders from the ’60s and ’70s, that doesn’t faze a younger workforce. “Perhaps it is true that archaic stereotypes of unions—you know, rigid institutions bent on imposing clunky rules to hamstring the world’s job-creators—would not seem to have any appeal for workers who deploy wit, are tech-savvy, and rely on creativity and nimbleness rather than brawn and routine,” he said in a recent HuffPost article. “But the commonplace notion of retrograde unions ignores the reality of the modern labor movement, which has thought long and hard about how to adapt to the contingent, flexible economy of the 21st century, and to the real needs of the modern workforce.”

It runs counter to “assumptions about younger Americans’ lack of interest in such collective action and the inability of unions to lure white-collar millennials,” as Peterson puts it. Media companies that are betting against this “mini-trend” may soon find themselves on the wrong side of history. At the time of publication, Vox Media refused to follow in the footsteps of other editorial sites and acknowledge its writers’ union, so the digital media staff staged a series of strikes—not by taking to the streets and refusing to work for days on end, but by boycotting Slack and Twitter for specific hours. They are hoping to reach a resolution soon.

For every new union gain, however, there’s a setback. When the writers at DNAinfo and Gothamist voted 25-2 in favor of unionization, the sites’ owner, Joe Ricketts, closed the entire operation, sparking headlines like the Times’ “A Billionaire Destroyed His Newsrooms Out of Spite.”

Unions tend to gain power in times of economic uncertainty, and decline during economic upswings or once an industry’s specific need has been met. As a country, America saw unions decline during the Roaring Twenties and then rise again during the Great Depression. In a precarious economy, where sudden sweeping changes from the government or a mercurial startup founder could mean the loss of a job, hours, benefits, or pension, today’s young, agile, community-oriented workforce is finding strength in numbers. If digital media writers can do it, can designers, too?

Allan Chochinov, chair of SVA’s M.F.A. in Products of Design, thinks designers are up to the challenge. “If clients treated designers well this wouldn’t even be a thing. Unions are a monopolization, but have we reached the point where employers have asked for this?” he says. “There are great studios, of course, but we’re approaching levels of workforce abuse where designers are signing away IP to big companies, there are overreaching contracts, 20-percent time, permalancing gone mad—and with no hope of benefits. We hear a lot about how the gig economy is good for designers who want flexibility, but it’s really only good for management, who never has to look after anyone again.”

Darryl Mascarenhas, ECD at creative agency Lively Group, acknowledges that workforce abuse is rife at agencies, where designers are often working against tight deadlines. “Some agencies don’t care because they’re under client pressure and will just move on to the next designer. But take a group like [freelance talent agency] Working Not Working, which a lot of agencies use. Those people don’t get run into the ground because word will get around. I suppose unions could upgrade declining payment rates and provide things like insurance and 401Ks, but the structure of a union would have to change; it’s just so outdated. Maybe the general designer should just learn their worth and how to negotiate their rates.”

In an industry where it’s easy to be taken advantage of, most designers and illustrators become accustomed to looking out for themselves. “When I was starting off, I worked around the clock for teeny amounts and with no idea what work was valued at,” says illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. “When I started working with a commercial agent, which I don’t anymore, I learned more about how rights work, about limitations and renewals, things like that. Having understood that earlier would have been helpful. We all struggle with valuing ourselves and figuring out how to charge, especially early on. If there was some kind of floor, that would be helpful, especially for women illustrators who tend to undervalue our work.”

MacNaughton also notes that for artists and designers who value autonomy and independence in their work life, being a part of a union can mean more compromise than they’re used to.

“Am I worried about losing some independence for the good of the group? Of course. But I also realize it’s worth it. Our field has changed so much in the past 10 to 20 years; maybe it’s due for a restructuring that benefits all its members, not just the favored few.”

Maria Rapetskaya, creative director of design studio Undefined Creative, is more skeptical still. “Pay regulations would be great, in theory. Most small companies I know are such fragile ecosystems that heavy-handed, broad strokes regulation would decimate our operations. Our rates and pay structures are intimately tied to our specific sector, our client base, our average budgets, and our production cycles. For example, instead of merit increases, we instituted cost-of-living raises and profit sharing to ensure that everyone gets a really nice end-of-year bonus to boost overall earnings without endangering the financial solvency of the company year-round with salaries. On top of that, rates don’t always translate to the quality of work or creativity, speed, efficiency, communication, etc. So I’ll gladly pay more for freelancers who may be less qualified on paper, but are a fantastic fit. Unfortunately, we’ve also paid high rates requested by artists who appear exceptionally qualified and then can’t deliver.

“Creativity is far too subjective to be standardized.”  

“The real problem of the creative industry as I see it isn’t that we can’t pay fair salaries, the problem is in the perceived value of our services that’s been spiraling down. That’s a ‘buyer side’ issue, and isn’t something you can regulate with unions. Buyers who want cheap services would go directly to non-union artists, driving pricing down further among small businesses that can’t navigate yet another set of bureaucratic hurdles and expenses.”

That’s only true if we carry the baggage of existing unions with us. If traditional unions might provide value to designers but traditional union models are out of date, why can’t we assess the major problems and design an optimal organizing body for our industry? What if we treat the problem of fair wages and better working conditions like a design brief?

Here, we’ll start you off. These are just a few of the current problems to consider:

  1. Designers have a hard time negotiating their rates. Pay rates and scales are not made readily available.
  2. Designers have a hard time negotiating terms and scope with clients. There is no visible general consensus on project standards and timelines.
  3. Design interns are often unpaid, or choose to work for free in exchange for a learning experience that is not delivered.
  4. Designers often work crazy hours. It’s assumed that a designer will work around the clock before a deadline without receiving equivalent time off.
  5. The value of design is not perceived by those outside the industry like it is for other creative professions (e.g., architects, film directors, actors, writers, etc.).

If this doesn’t describe your experience or your company, that’s great. Unfortunately, it’s a reality for many, especially at the junior level. And if you have had a more positive experience, all the more reason to show your support for fair standards that regulate bad actors in the industry. By joining together with hundreds and thousands of other designers and creative professionals, “what you gain is the muscle of collective action,” says Hoyt Wheeler, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, who’s now a labor arbitrator. With that muscle you can negotiate wages, health and safety issues, benefits, and working conditions with management.

That same muscle can constrain members, too. The flip side of job security is that union members sacrifice individuality by belonging to a group. You may disagree with some of the union’s decisions, but you are bound by them. When design author and expert Steven Heller was the art director of the New York Times, he was obliged to be part of a union he couldn’t wait to get out of. “You’re essentially stuck with a bunch of other people that you’re not agreeing with all the time,” he says.

“What will strength in numbers actually accomplish? Having a revolution is not in the graphic design DNA.”

Whether or not you agree with that statement, or are at least more optimistic, the history of union friction has shown that getting broad acceptance among a large group of people, or simply “joining together,” isn’t simple at all. Plus, design “lacks the history of film unions, for instance,” says Heller. “We’d be starting from scratch, which is problematic and requires the education of lots of people, from small to big businesses. There’s a logistical problem there.”

Few people know first-hand just how complicated these logistical problems are than Ric Grefé, who was the executive director of AIGA for 20 years and oversaw its growth from a small New York–centric club to a nationwide organization that now represents more than 20,000 members.

“If you become a union, you become an enemy,” he says. “Historically, union members can become intractable when it comes to employers. Unions work well for freelancers who feel they have no rights, but what’s good for the freelancers is bad for the studios, and if AIGA became a union it would be caught in the middle while attempting to represent both.”  

Without this kind of bargaining power, AIGA offered the annual Salary Survey and now the Design Census as a means of disclosing pay rates to better inform those working across the industry. At best, nonprofits like AIGA, or like the Freelancer’s Union, can create resources for its members and advocate on their behalf, but they can’t set regulations or enforce pre-existing ones.

“The best thing AIGA can do,” says Grefé, “is establish a perception of designers that is up the value chain in terms of concept, strategy, and being multi-disciplinary, so they can have a greater influence with their clients. It’s better to have a moral high ground than lock clients into a union agreement.”

Moral high grounds are fine and good, but unless it’s in the contract it’s often as good as forgotten. Also, might not a regulated set of professional standards actually improve the public perception of the value of design, as it has for other unionized creative industries, like film and TV?

“At one point unions were looked upon as godsends,” says Heller. “They set standards. Belonging to a union was a validation of someone’s abilities. Personally, I’d like to see an organization that has certain standards, and in order to be part of that organization you have to fulfill those standards, through an apprentice period, like architects.”

SVA professor Chochinov also sees the value in requiring graphic designers and illustrators to meet a basic requirement for practice. “Short of licensing a profession, could there be a set requirement?” he wonders. “Then benefits like collective bargaining start to become interesting, because there’s a guarantee of competency and quality.” So, not a union, and not professional license, but an industry-wide standard of proficiency? Sounds kind of like a guild.

Guilds date back to 1080, but rose to prominence in the 14th century, when a young person was required to apprentice under a master for a set length of time before they were admitted to the guild and thus marked as a professional. “I like the idea of a guild more than a union,” says Mascarenhas. “For the amount of people who claim to be designers, the percentile you’d want to work with is actually pretty low. It’s one thing to kern some type, but it’s another thing to understand a brief and know how to collaborate with a team. My main questions about a guild would be: Does it fit into the modern working world, and when that changes, can it adapt over time?”

Still, a guild can only make recommendations that its membership can use to develop a standard—it can’t legally enforce them. So how do we hold people accountable?

We could start by asking designers to hold themselves accountable by opting in to an oath, of sorts, or some kind of design manifesto. All independent contractors and business owners who vowed to adhere to these standards could, for example, mark themselves as “Design Oath Compliant” on their sites, and anyone who didn’t proclaim themselves as “proudly DOC” would incur wrath on Twitter. Enforcement by public shaming might even be more powerful than enforcement by unions. Plus, who doesn’t love a good acronym?

Of course an oath isn’t enough, not by a long shot. If we can learn anything from the shortcomings of medieval guilds or the mistakes made by 20th-century unions, it’s that a new model is needed—something that takes the working parts of all these collectives and leaves the broken bits behind.

“You know, if you really wanted to do design a service after you’re done writing about this,” says Chochinov, “you could prototype a working model.” Anyone good at group logistics?