Mike Quille interviews Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions
Thanks for the chance to interview you on the subject of culture and the labour movement. Recently I interviewed Mark Taylor, one of the authors of Culture is Bad For You, a new book outlining how culture is riven by divisions and inequalities based on class background, ethnic origin and gender. Working-class people are much less likely to get into good jobs in the cultural industries, as actors, musicians, writers, film-makers etc., and much less likely to sustain them and make progress in them.
They are also under-represented as consumers, in audiences, visitors to galleries, concerts. In addition, there is also other research showing how literature, along with other mainstream cultural experiences, fail to represent working-class people fairly.
What is your experience and your views as a trade union leader on these issues?
Culture is a site of struggle that has huge potential to further improve our world and the lives of working people excluded from the many rich cultural experiences on offer.
I suggest that we as agents of change have yet, despite some valiant efforts, failed to fully employ the many forms of expression culture encompasses as a vehicle for change. This failure is evident in, the under-representation of the working class as contributors, instigators of and consumers of culture. It is obvious also in the subjects that populate the cultural landscape and the mediums in which they are expressed. Persons of influence in working-class communities, politics and the labour movement generally have been focused in seeking to address more pressing issues, such as ending poverty and creating a society where everyone is facilitated to reach their potential in peaceful co-existence.
The reasons underpinning this failure are complex. It is not simply that the middle and upper classes are better educated and possessed of incomes that permit them to indulge their cultural pretensions. It is not because the working class do not appreciate beauty or are devoid of imagination and talent. The failure, as I see it, is centred in two areas – those of opportunity and access.
Opportunity arises when circumstances allow for some of the time and energy otherwise expended on survival to be employed to communicate and share our experience and interpretation of the world around us. While access is about enabling, by overcoming the gatekeepers, to facilitate participation, creation and consumption of culture on the part of working people.
The stranglehold established on both of these areas by the middle and upper classes has permitted them a filter on all aspects of cultural life. If we are to be successful in broadening opportunity and facilitating greater access for the working class into society’s cultural life, we have to create the conditions whereby working people have the time and the energy to express themselves. That can only come about when the economic system which scaffolds our world is reshaped to bring about the necessary redistributions of power and wealth to facilitate this.
While that broader struggle continues it is important and vital that working-class experience of the world is recorded, transmitted and enjoyed by a broader audience. And for that to happen working people need to seize on the possibilities of technology and challenge the established cultural gatekeepers.
Those influencers who promote cultural mediums and expression, those who commission this work and target it at particular audiences need to be presented with authentic examples of the working-class experience. This working-class experience represents a largely unmined treasure trove of beauty, truth and joy, qualities enjoyed by audiences of all classes. I see my task, as a someone in a position of leadership, as providing encouragement to and advocacy on behalf of creatives working in whatever medium who communicate the working-class experience and interpretation of the world.
Can you give us an example of recent cultural works which in your opinion successfully communicate working-class experience?
The recent publication by the Culture Matters Co-operative of an anthology of writing by Irish working people and those of Irish descent, successfully communicates the working-class experience. This rich variety of stories from across the island of Ireland have been edited into a coherent and powerful insight to lives lived on the edge of social and economic certainty. “From the Plough to the Stars” showcases the raw talent, the humanity and honour of those that society has in many cases chosen to marginalise. The stories themselves, largely written by people unknown to the literary world, communicate with honesty both uncomfortable truths and reasons to be hopeful.
Jenny Farrell, who did the editing, has alongside these writers challenged all of us as well as the established cultural elite to embrace the everyday experiences of working people. And while this book is entertaining, it is so much more, representing that challenge to wider society’s understanding of the sort off the world, we live in. This is central to what culture should do in all its forms, and this work is a fine example of it being done correctly.
Trade unions play a central role in the economic struggle to improve terms and conditions of working people; and they play an important role in the political struggle to bring progressive values of democracy, equality and justice into social life.
What can they do as part of the cultural struggle to serve their members; to ally with and support creative workers who want to focus on working-class experience in the content of their cultural work; and to influence government policies towards culture – for example the funding, accessibility, and content of state-supported culture?
I see the answer in two parts. Namely what is it trade unions can do themselves, internally, to support culture and those who participate in cultural activity as either creatives, or in the crafts and trades that bring so much of our culture to the audience. Then secondly, trade unions need to come up with a plan to persuade the gatekeepers in government and the creative industries to change their approaches and open culture and its opportunities to all.
The whole notion of culture as a site of struggle that can effect positive change for working people needs to be addressed urgently by the trade union movement. Culture represents an opportunity to present an alternative narrative, build relationships and persuade people. Others are embracing its potential and trade unions risk being left behind. Trade unions have been focused for the last three decades on resisting the erosion of their capacity to effectively represent workers in the face of a succession of neoliberal governments and an increasingly global economic order. This struggle is essential and can be enhanced and aided by broadening the challenge to the established order into culture and the arts.
It requires a shift in mindset amongst trade union memberships that will come about with demonstrations of the power that cultural media present. Such demonstrations are becoming more popular across the world. For example: Banksy’s painting of a vigil candle burning the US flag; or the art of Ai Wei Wei are but two examples from recent times. These examples illustrate this power being exercised on a global stage but the same power on a different scale is within the reach of every individual and every community across the globe. Witness the wall at Free Derry Corner, which regularly features in various media communicating a community’s concerns, demands and solidarity with others.
Previously I have said that accessibility and opportunity represented the challenges working people need to be facilitated in overcoming to fully participate in cultural activities. The trade union movement has provided such access in the past – the miners’ libraries of Wales and the Socialist Sunday Schools of the mid-19th century and early 20th century are examples of what was done. Today our trade unions run extensive education programmes which could be broadened to further open up the cultural world to working people. Trade unions can choose to do this.
Efforts to organise the existing workforce in the crafts and trades which are vital to producing and showing cultural works need to be redoubled. This has to be a priority given these areas of work are riven with bogus self-employment and the zero-hours contract. These two devices are already targeted by the entire trade union movement, and extending the battle aggressively into the cultural sphere can only assist in bringing about their end. It would also attract more workers into trade union membership given the inherent financial vulnerabilities of so much cultural activity
Trade unions also possess the capacity to assist cultural workers and local communities to access the existing limited arts funding available from the government and charitable avenues. Simple things such as identifying potential funding opportunities and providing technical assistance to complete often lengthy and complicate applications are examples of practical help that could be made available.
Lessons learned by trade unions when taking industrial action are also a ready source of help. The power of the consumer could be better organised and mobilised. No one is better suited to this type of activity than trade unionists. Such activism has both the power to demand change but to also shift the cultural landscape to one more equally reflective of the experiences of everyone who shares the planet.
What difference do you think the current pandemic is making to the cultural life of working people?
The pandemic is acting on the cultural life of working people with the same disregard as it is acting on the cultural lives of everyone. Culture is being suppressed and will continue to be suppressed, as funding and audiences will both take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels. What the post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to manage the re-start of cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class or whether they are fans of Milton or Rita Ora.
Thanks very much Gerry, you have outlined a comprehensive and radical agenda for the trade union movement, cultural workers and cultural consumers. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to restart cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class, race or gender.
It really is time we took it back, and shared our stories.