Unions and/or Interns: The Arts and Disemployment

In Philadelphia during the past month there has been an “instructive conflict” arising from a strike by stage-hands at a local theater that was producing a very powerful play, The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall.

The play is about the last night of Martin Luther King’s life, between his speech about standing on the mountain-top, looking into the Promised Land – which he said he might never reach – and the bullet that killed him next day. The strike took on special poignancy because MLK was in Memphis, and vulnerable to assassination, because he was supporting garbage workers who were on strike.

The main issue between the theater and the stage-hands’ union was whether the theater should continue recruiting unpaid interns whom the stage-hands felt were a threat to their pay and jobs. Beyond the theater, there was a community-wide debate about the comparative, competitive, or complementary value of unions and of interns to society.

 I took a strong stance in favor of the union. I felt my stand reinforced by notes to me that pointed out that many young people are now doing unpaid internships because they can’t find paid jobs —  jobs that at least in some cases used to exist, and have been destroyed by the continuing Great Recess/Depression.

 On the other hand, one letter-writer said, “Do I wish we lived in a world in which artists and educators were fairly paid for the contributions they make to our society?  Yes, of course “ – and then went on to say that we don’t live in that world, and that unpaid internships are a necessary part of the world we do live in, if the arts are to flourish.

 The question I want to raise is what might we have in mind to begin making the wistful wish – fair pay for artists and educators — into greater reality.   If we will it, could it become not merely a wistful dream?

 For me, this is where the strength or weakness of the labor movement comes into account. I fully realize that not every union behaves in accord with my or our ethics, though some of us may have a broader sense of legitimate ethical behavior than others of us (e.g. what we think about demonstrations at the homes of management).  But in the broad sense, and as a first response, subject to specific concerns, I come to our general social crisis with a deliberate, conscious  “bias” in favoring the labor movement.

Without them, the wistful wish can’t be accomplished. And not only that — also our wish for a vigorous response to the climate crisis, our wish for an end to mass incarceration — all the things we talked about during the Heschel-King Festival in early January.  With the labor movement in a very weakened state, it will be very hard or impossible to accomplish any of those dreams.  

 So I think we have to ask ourselves a difficult question: How do we build an alliance between progressive academics/artists/ social workers/ teachers and the labor movement?  Don’t we have to pay far more attention than we have become accustomed to, to the fears and hurts of blue-collar workers?   

 And don’t we have to begin insisting that community-based cultural work is at the root — yes, really the root, not a mere branch —  of a vigorous democratic society in this century, and that EVERYBODY in those enterprises deserves a decent income?  That means full, really full, employment — not just 91% of those who have not yet given up looking for jobs and those who have not yet been sent to prison because the only work they could find was in illegal enterprises like selling dope —  full, really full, employment.

 (I can remember that when the “unemployment” rate in October 1958 was 6.7%, people were so outraged by what they, we, thought was a depression that the Democrats swept the House of Representatives in the November election, including such unexpected victories as the young lawyer who won in the Madison-Waukesha district of Wisconsin, the first Dem to win there in almost 30 years.  I was a grad student in Madison, and I became his legislative assistant — changing my life-direction in a permanent way.  How could I forget?!! —  But the point is, we thought 6.7% official ”unemployment” was a depression. Compare that with now.)

I think it would be a valuable, life-enhancing process for us to discuss how we who read these Shalom Reports – who are mostly the more academic/social-work/cultural “middle class” —can make alliances and connections with the older working class.