Courtesy UVW Culture & Design Workers

The UK graphic design collective Evening Class is incredibly organized. The online flyer for its event What Could a Union Do for Graphic Design links out to three previous presentations it gave on design unions. A nicely designed handout breaks out UK employment rights in neat blocks of text; the verso includes an exhaustive, four-column list of references and a glossary of union terms. When I interview two members of the collective’s union working group, they drop links and presentation slides into a shared Google Doc as we talk. They have stats at the ready: “The Guardian reports that in 2017 the number of strikes in the UK was the lowest since records began. The total number of strike days lost numbered just 170,000 compared to 29.5 million in 1979—year of the so-called Winter of Discontent.”

The group, which was founded in 2016 as an “experiment in self-organized education,” has just set out on the bold endeavor of starting a union for designers, following three years of looking into employment practices, co-operative working structures, and labor conditions in design. During the process, the group created lists of co-ops, current unions, and relevant trade unions of the past. When it comes to historical precedents, the designers credit the Artist Union in New York (1933) and the Artists’ Union in London (1970s) as the most relevant to their efforts, thanks to the groups’ work connecting creativity to labor. 

But zero in specifically on graphic design, and the historical precedents are mostly trade unions representing printers, presses, or typographers. For Evening Class, the structures of specialized trade or craft-based unions don’t provide the best blueprint for a designers union today. “They were responding to quite different labor conditions than ours,” says Christopher Lacy, an Evening Class member and part of the union working group (now called Graphic Design Workers Inquiry). Workers were generally employed by one company and worked out of its office or factory, where they’d clock in and out at specific times.  “Because of the way the discipline’s changed—moving away from clear sites of industry, from craft to computer, from collective to fragmented—we’ve excluded the history of workplace organizing from graphic design,” Lacy says. 

“We found that gig economy workers have a lot of natural overlap to the design work.”

Most of the designers Evening Class has spoken to about unionizing are self-employed or freelance (as are one in four creative economy workers, according to London advice and data platform GLA Economics); they’re dispersed across the city and share many of the same grievances, but not the same workplace. The more Lacy and his fellow working group members looked into it, the more they found similarities with the conditions of employees in new industries that are equally precarious and atomized, like Uber drivers or Deliveroo riders. “We found that gig economy workers have a lot of natural overlap with designers,” says Lacy. “With creative work, the conditions are changing rapidly and often for the worse, and we found the strategies used by the contemporary grassroots unions coming up around these gig economy jobs were more transferable.”

From the list of demands made at a recent UVW design and cultural workers meeting

Evening Class started thinking seriously about starting a union in 2018 as they were putting on events for the London alternate education series Antiuniversity Now, and having conversations with designers about unhealthy work practices and how creative work is often disassociated from labor conditions. It published an open letter against undisclosed salaries to design jobs boards such as If You Could, Arts Jobs (Arts Council England), and jobs listings at publications like the Guardian, Design Observer, and Dezeen. And it was increasingly finding that designers—especially those working freelance and at home, with no boss or HR department—had similar grievances about the design industry, but little knowledge about basic employment rights or standards for wages and conditions. The group thought that the only way to change the status quo for working in design was to bring people together.

Starting a union from scratch is expensive and legally complicated, though. “It’s almost like setting up an institution: you need money, certain affiliations, political clout,” says Lacy. Research and generating interest could only take them so far, they also needed certain infrastructure that a group like Evening Class couldn’t provide alone. After one of its talks, the group was approached by Shiri Shalmy, an organizer with a union called United Voices of the World (UVW), who encouraged them to start a designers and cultural workers branch within the union. So they did.

From the list of demands made at a recent UVW design and cultural workers meeting

Generally speaking, unions are dedicated to improving its members’ wages, hours, and working conditions, often through the process of collective bargaining to negotiate with employers on workers’ behalves. They also provide resources and education about workers’ rights, and can provide legal counsel. UVW is a newer union—it started in 2014, predominantly organizing migrant cleaners, and has recently launched branches representing sex workers and another for legal case workers. It’s part of a new crop of grassroots, “bottom-up” organizations that aren’t sector-specific, that are set up to respond quickly to issues that arise, and that tend to represent gig economy and nontraditional jobs. To create a new branch for designers and cultural workers, Evening Class co-organized a fundraiser and launch party in July 2019, where anyone who wanted to join could sign up for UVW and paid a membership fee of £6–10 (or around $8-12), depending on income. 

What the designers and cultural workers branch looks like and does will be decided by its members, who had their first official meeting on October 2. Joining an existing union not only provides the initial infrastructure—it also connects designers with other precarious workers, allowing them to participate in the strikes and campaigns of the other branches and vice versa. 

“It’s a big cultural shift to get people who work in the creative industries to think about kind of being represented in this way.”

That type of exposure is important to what Lacy calls the educational side of unionizing. “In talking to other practitioners, so many people have never even considered a union,” he says. “I think it’s a big cultural shift to get people who work in the creative industries to think about being represented in this way.” 

One challenge Lacy and his fellow working group members have found specifically in organizing cultural workers is a pervasive idea that creative or design work is not like other forms of labor, and its workers don’t deserve protections. “Designers also feel very grateful to be within the so called creative class, which can easily lead to people being taken advantage of,” says Lacy. This can come in the form of unpaid internships that leverage prestige for actual wages; free pitching or spec work; undisclosed salaries; a lack of client contracts; or simply a culture of long hours and unclear industry wage standards. The group is still working out exactly how the union will address these issues, but Lacy says the initial efforts will likely be along the lines of the open letter against undisclosed salaries—it plans to develop resources that can provide cohesive guidance for a dispersed workforce and incite change. After the meeting on October 2, the members reframed many of the most common issues into a list of demands (which can be seen in the images above).

From the list of demands made at a recent UVW design and cultural workers meeting

As the design and cultural workers union solidifies, it continues looking toward other non-traditional grassroots unions that have made big gains lately. One of the UK’s newest unions, Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) has been taking on tech giants like food courier service Deliveroo and winning basic rights like minimum wage, sick pay, and pensions for their members. It was also behind the court case that ruled in favor of Hermes couriers being categorized as workers instead of independent contractors, which The Guardian describes as “one of the most significant victories against exploitation of gig-economy workers.” Lacy sees a clear relevance in those cases for self-employed designers, who are similarly dispersed and often don’t enjoy, or even know, their basic employment rights because they work for themselves.

“People who are working within creative industries have to do some mental gymnastics to conceptualize what it might mean to be unionized when you’re also the boss.”

“With gig workers, a lot of their early struggles concentrated on fighting for the language of representation,” he says. “We’ve seen the rights that come with simply having a linguistic framework around what you do.” Lacy says that in design, he often sees self-employed workers considering themselves their own boss, which can make representation seem antithetical. “You have to do some mental gymnastics to conceptualize what it might mean to be unionized when you think you’re also the boss,” he says. 

From the list of demands made at a recent UVW design and cultural workers meeting

The UVW design and cultural workers union is not limited to freelancers—in fact, the group says it’s important to have members with a range of different positions and at different levels in their career. Bec Worth, an Evening Class member who is also a part of the Graphic Design Workers Inquiry with Lacy, says she recently took a full-time position with an employer who treats her fairly, and she briefly wondered if she needed to be in a union. She decided that she did: “Because we are so fragmented, I do think it’s important to show solidarity with others so that conditions can be improved across the industry.”

Panoramic shot of UVW Culture & Design Workers meeting at Cubbits Gallery