A colleague of mine, Ksenija Berk, has posed to me a question about the necessity of design labor unions based on a listserv discussion among she, Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven, and myself. The discussion was generated from an article she is writing based on her completed PhD dissertation. I spent a good portion of the morning crafting the response, which I thought I would post it here.
On 7/28/08 12:01 PM, "Ksenija Berk" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
The question I'd like to elaborate further with you and where I see a possibility for a design policy is my paraphrase of the Daniel van der Velden's question: Is now a time for a design labour union?
I will answer that questions in two ways. One anecdotally and one based on my knowledge of the US-based AIGA, the professional organization for design.
Anecdotally: In early 2000, at the height of the US dotcom boom, I told my colleagues at Sapient that we should start a knowledge workers labor union to ensure that when things went sour, which they always do, that we could keep our M&Ms, free food and drinks, Aeron chairs, bonus compensation, message therapists, lock into high worth stock options, good medical coverage, nap rooms, flexible schedules, etc. They laughed at me saying the equivalent of, “Dude, we got it so good. What do we need a labor union for?” This is because they imagined themselves as knowledge workers, where the brand of their high paid skills would guarantee that they could always negotiate for better salary and perks. When the dot com boom crashed in about 2001 and all those perks went away as well as any semblance of job security, they came back to me and said the equivalent of, “Dude, you were right.”
The challenge is that the model of the labor union is tied to ideas of fixed and standardized labor in the Fordist mode as per Daniel’s statement. Meaning, labor unions from the industrial mode argue for fixed and incrementally increasing wages based on standardized labor descriptions and standardized hours, the safety and protection of workers, protection of pensions, and guarding against unfair firing of workers. The underlying assumptions of this system are that (1) worker’s labor can be standardized (which requires deskilling through Taylorism) and (2) that worker’s stay in one place for a significant period of time (in order to accrue things like wage increases and pensions). Your thesis is dead on that contemporary designers do not work under those conditions, as do very few people anymore.
We are in a Post-Fordist mode of capitalism defined by flexibility in the descriptions of the type of labor, the hours ascribed to it, the shift or extension of the location of work from factory/office to the “cottage/home” aided by the ubiquity of the ITC tools of production (i.e. Laptop computers and software). This reduces the need for the manager to focus on issues of safety and protection because they have no “control” over the worker’s domicile or Starbucks café and the worker would resist any control in their private domain. Workers no longer expect or intend to stay in jobs long enough to accrue wage increases and the concept of pensions is long gone. So your description is accurate of current conditions, I just think that the term immaterial worker (read in US context: knowledge worker) fails to address the role of the materiality of design’s labor which allows you to capture its value in standardized deliverables.
So what is the possibility of design labor union in the immaterial labor, post-Fordist mode?
AIGA: This is where I find the activities of AIGA, which is selected because I am most intimate with it as a design organization, interesting because it seeks to provide many of the protections for design labor through the discourse of professionalism.
If the intentions of a union are to set fair prices for labor, ensure the safety and well being of its labor force, assist in the accumulation of wealth for retirement, and protect the legal rights of hiring and firing for its labor force; AIGA does most of that for its design membership.
Setting Fair Prices for Labor: AIGA just recently launched its website for the Center for Practice Management. On the site, they provide tips on how to calculate a freelance rate, set a rate for a firm, determining the various pricing models (it outlines 6), and address the challenges of low-ballers. It also conducts an annual salary survey to determine the market range for design labor geographically and by position.
Ensure the safety and well being of its labor force: There are two separate initiatives around this one. AIGA serves as a collective for reduced health insurance, especially for its freelance designers. Its Sustainability initiatives and section on other management issues seeks to address the toxicity and wastefulness of the design work tools (i.e. Printers, paper, ink, etc).
Wealth for retirement: There are no official initiatives around this area that I know of beyond the indirect practice management issues.
Protect the legal rights of hiring and firing: AIGA provides standard and flexible business agreement templates for designers as well as a list of standards of professional practice to inform and aid designers of their rights and responsibilities as professionals.
Other things that AIGA does is advocate for better descriptions of design practices with the US Dept of Labor so that it is more aligned with current practices, train designers on how to elevate their skills, provide discounts on designer tools like software from Adobe and fonts, etc.
So at least AIGA, and to some extent many of the American professional organizations, serves as a design labor union with over 20K members of various design levels and skills.
(Don’t let Ric know that I just wrote a long love letter to AIGA or that I called AIGA a labor union).