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Cultural.coop, reimagining cultural work

24 June 2016 [ English ] français ]

“The lives of cultural workers are complex and contradictory; insecurity, low pay, long hours, pressure and anxiety are often the prize to pay for some degree of pleasure and autonomy at work”, complains Marisol Sandoval, lecturer at the Centre of Culture and Creative Industries of the City University of London. “The cultural industries systematically exploit the passion and enthusiasm of cultural workers through unpaid internships, free labour and underpaid and precarious work contracts. Still, jobs in the cultural sector remain extremely popular – and in times when enjoying one’s work appears as a privilege, giving up job security or workplace rights might seem like an acceptable sacrifice to make”.

Sandoval is also co-founder of the recently launched Cultural Cooperatives website. It is an attempt to contribute to the demands for alternatives, that are starting to get louder.

“It on the one hand aims to increase visibility for the cooperative model as an alternative to exploited and individualised cultural work”, Sandoval explains. “On the other hand it tries to encourage cooperation among cultural coops by providing a platform for sharing ideas, information and resources”.

The website includes a directory of cultural coops in the UK, which is still growing. It also features examples of cultural cooperatives including videos that introduce Ceramics Studio Coop and the design and print cooperative Calverts. Both are based in London and illustrate two different ways of how cooperatives operate in the cultural sector.

Creating the Cultural Cooperatives website has helped to connect cultural sector cooperatives in the UK. On last May 20, they held the first cultural cooperative meeting in London. It was a full day of discussions about what challenges cultural cooperatives are facing and how they can work together to address them. Participants agreed that radical imagination is needed in order to envision pathways towards more just, democratic and egalitarian futures for everyone.

Worker cooperatives have an important role to play in such a movement. Cooperatives practically illustrate that common ownership, collective decision making and economic democracy offer a real alternative. They are empowering because cooperatives are an opportunity to not just demand change, but to create it”, Sandoval continues. “Refusing to compete and starting to cooperate is an act of resistance. It is a refusal to accept persistent underpay, impossible deadlines, bullying, exploitation, individualism and competition as a necessary element of cultural work. Cooperatives instead create a culture of mutual support, solidarity and cooperation”.

But starting and running a cooperative is not always easy. While in the cultural sector investment costs are usually comparatively low, it still involves a lot of time and some financial resources to get a cooperative going. The continuous challenge of finding a way to generate enough income to support all cooperative members without having to compromise on cooperative principles can put cooperatives under pressure.

“Cooperatives therefore need to support each other. They need to take principle 6 seriously and work together. If cooperatives want to widen their impact they need to cooperate not only to share information, skills and resources but also to campaign for structural change”, Sandoval conclude. “Together cooperatives can formulate political demands for reforms that would make it easier to start and run a cooperative such as for example public funding opportunities, an unconditional basic income, free access to education and universally accessible childcare. But cooperatives can’t change capitalist work cultures on their own. In order to increase their ability to create large-scale change, cooperatives need to collaborative with old and new trade unions, activist groups and social movements to create a bigger movement that does not only envision radical change but builds power to create it”.