What a way to make a living | An art worker in the climate movement

Art workers joined the climate strikes on 29 November 2019. Here art worker Katherine Hearst discusses how she and her colleagues discovered a link between their precarious jobs and the climate crisis. (An earlier version of this article appeared in the New Internationalist.)

A group of artworkers stand with a banner outdoors on the Southbank in London
20 September 2019. Photo: Jess Worth

For the past two years, I have been juggling roles as a climate campaigner and an art worker. Until the climate strike on 20 September this year, I did not see these two parts of my life as linked. My paid work was merely a means to supplement my unpaid work as a climate campaigner and a filmmaker.

I enjoy a privilege that is denied to many, providing a safety net that opens up margins of time around my paid work. It’s these margins that allow me to participate in political movements and do my creative work. However, this summer I started to receive fewer shifts. I fell ill from stress and my climate campaigning and creative work came to a halt. My margins of time were being eroded. It was then I realised that these disparate areas of my working life were indeed linked.

Financial Insecurity chips away at your self-esteem. Mental and physical health problems among my colleagues are endemic. One co-worker described having an anxiety attack in a supermarket when he realized he couldn’t afford anything. Another, I found doubled over in pain on a shift. She couldn’t afford to be sent home as she wasn’t entitled to sick pay. Last week, I found out that another colleague was homeless-he spoke very matter of factly about sleeping on public transport. He has developed an incurable lung condition as a result.

In 2016, a colleague from a different venue, who had been battling with depression committed suicide. Tributes at his memorial revealed a rich creative life, but he did not see his own value. A significant number of my colleagues across different venues are on hefty doses of antidepressants. This summer, a close friend’s ex, an aspiring actor, threw himself from Waterloo Bridge.

Last year, I ushered a show called Hadestown – a musical retelling of the Orpheus myth, in which hell is a factory floor. The underworld is run by an army of workers who are so downtrodden they don’t lift their eyes from the ground. I don’t work in a factory in leather overalls, and I can’t say ushering makes me break a sweat, but there was something in this analogy that resonated with us as the staff at the theatre.

Insecurity is alienating; it inhibits your ability to connect with others, to engage in the world around us, to feel rage as its destruction. It has been a serious barrier to many art workers from participating meaningfully in the climate movement. But this summer, after falling ill from stress, and after hearing the call for adults to join the youth strikes, I realised that I had to bring my climate campaigning to the workplace.

I began talking to my colleagues about organising a walkout as part of the climate strike on 20 September. We wrote a letter to management explaining our reasons for the action and requesting their support. We talked about the transformational social change that was required to confront the climate crisis and arts institutions’ role in delivering this change. But we also talked about how the casual nature of our contracts obstructed our ability to participate in the climate movement.

We also felt that discussion about climate action by our employers has been limited. It has tended to be restricted to the upper echelons of management and mainly concerned with reducing an institution’s carbon footprint.

Although this is important, the arts is already a relatively low carbon sector. I believe the significance of our role lies elsewhere. The scale of this crisis demands more from us. It demands a momentous cultural shift. To truly confront this crisis, we need to go deeper. Exploitative contracts and poor pay prevent art workers – and so many other precarious workers – from joining the fight to save the planet. Job insecurity must be tackled hand in hand with carbon emissions.

As arts workers, we understand the power of stories to disrupt norms, to inspire hope. Our arts institutions could play a powerful role in this, but not while we feel powerless to influence them. If we are to maintain the pressure on this blossoming divestment movement, arts workers will need a say. We need to be bolder and we need to involve everyone in this movement. We need to ensure that staff at arts venues are secure enough to participate and their voice is given equal weight.

On 20 September, we marched with staff from the Tate, The Southbank Centre, Art Not Oil campaigners and members of PCS and BECTU under the banner, Art Workers support the climate strikers. Shortly after, the National Theatre announced it would be ending its partnership with Shell. And, although the press coverage does not mention this, I think our action precipitated this decision.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what precisely it is we’re asking of our employers. We demanded they declare a climate emergency: they did. We demanded they drop Shell as a sponsor: they did.

But we’re still battling to protect those precious margins of time from being absorbed by the monotony of shift work, and it’s a battle many of us feel we’re losing. We are still fighting harder and harder to stay afloat. How can we be climate warriors? How can we answer Greta Thunberg’s call to action when scrabbling around for shifts?

It’s not enough for a theatre with ample resources and a staff of many vulnerable workers, some of whom are on the breadline, to declare a climate emergency. It evades the central problem, which is that financial and social vulnerability is excluding its workers from participating in a movement that so desperately needs them.

Shortly after the action on 20 September, I was contacted by a member of management. He said he was from the ‘environmental group’. I’ve been working at the theatre for four years and have never heard of an environmental group- nor had any of my colleagues. He was very concerned by the letter we had sent which explained that front of house staff were anxious about losing their jobs over the walkout.

He was surprised and asked me why. So, I told him, that Front of House staff needed to have more agency over their workplace and greater job security to build and be part of a climate movement in the arts.

It’s a question of time, he said.

My answer to him is there’s none left. The time is now, we need to lift our eyes from the factory floor.

 

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