You will be got, you're not in the union

I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, one of the two unions in the UK which represents graphic designers, the other being Amicus. Although I am no longer a designer, I retained my NUJ membership because I became a journalist.

Despite my family's petit bourgeois - to use the classic nomenclature - leanings, I have always been a believer in the value of organised labour. Spending time in the economic dead-zone that is Northern Ireland may have something to do with that, or, perhaps it was growing up piss-poor with Thatcher and co. in government that did it for me.

On the other hand, it could just be the recognition that a democratic and membership-based organisation can negotiate in a way that I as a single individual never could.

As a journalist I automatically win the battles that my colleagues and those who have went before them. At the very least I am not going to freeload off their successes.

But what about designers?

A quick phone call to the NUJ revealed that the union measures its membership among designers in the hundreds, not thousands. Amicus, meanwhile, which represents designers across the industry rather than just those engaged in editorial work, likely has significantly more members but unionisation is low in the design industry in general. But what percentage of designers are unionised?

Not many, I would guess. Design is too post-material, too cool and too creative to need unions, right?

Despite this, many designers do seem to hold vaguely left-wing or liberal opinions. In this sense at least, design differs from the IT sector which is dominated by a right-wing libertarian ideology. Tony Long recently wrote about this at some length over at Wired News.

Not so long ago I interviewed Mark Ames, author of Going Postal, a book about workplace rage-killings in the US. Ames said that Americans had been sold that not only were unions somehow "un-American", but they they were the preserve of whiny losers. Anyone who needs a union is in a crap, low-paying jobs and therefore, so goes the logic, union membership is a sign that you have a crap job and deserve low pay. And are a whiny losers to boot.

Some interesting self-perpetuating logic is at work there. Sadly, he's right - that is how many people in the United States - and increasingly elsewhere - view trade union membership.

However, while designers at the top of the pile will continue to score big commissions, is there not even a peep of a worry that much of the lower-profile design work in Britain could be outsourced? After all, it's happening in IT, such are the vagaries of the post-material economy.

I am under no illusions. Unions have been in decline for decades. The 1984 miners' strike may have finally emasculated them, but the decline set in long before then. Sadly, there is still a perception in the press and in some quarters of public opinion, that unions are organised gangs of bolshy trouble-makers. Nothing could be further from the truth - unions are simply there to improve working condtions.

After all, who would want to work in an industry where unpaid 'voluntary' overtime was the norm or one where you had to stay until the job was finished, regardless of how long it took you?

For the record, unions work. It's worth noting, for example, that in the Republic of Ireland bartenders enjoy a high union-mandated wage and, therefore, a significantly higher standard of living than the same job would afford in the UK.

Of course, the way the design industry is organised does tend to mitigate against unions. Design agencies are often quite small, so the benefits of unionisation may seem lost on individual designers. On top of this, you also have a large segment of self-employed freelance designers, for whom the benefits of membership are far from clear.

Ironically, this all reflects design's status as a trade, but even if design was a profession, remember that standing together is common across industry. The British Medical Association is a union in all but name, in fact one Conservative minister, I cannot remember whom, once remarked that it should not be forgotten that the BMA was a union, "and a particularly nasty one at that."

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Elsewhere on IDG sites

Read Next...