I read an article in the Financial Times earlier this week (September 23, 2023) -…
A regular reader (thanks Sam) sent me some information about the cancellation of performing arts festivals in France as a result of austerity. This accelerating trend, which is worldwide, brings into focus the two pronged attack on workers by neo-liberalism. First, governments have been pressured or acceded to cutting public spending which has created higher unemployment, higher underemployment, casualisation and suppressed wages. Then, second, there has been a massive attack on income support systems with claims that they have become nonviable because of the increased demand for state support arising from the rising unemployment. The worker cannot win – which, of course, is the object of the exercise. Performing artists are among the most disadvantaged workers in the labour market and face particular problems – precarious, multi-employer jobs with variable pay interspersed with long periods of non-pay (although they are still working – rehearsal etc). The French developed a unique scheme to cope with this precarious existence, recognising the massive cultural and economic benefits that the arts industry generates. But even that scheme of income support is under attack as job opportunities decline even further in the face of public spending cuts. A Job Guarantee would go a long way to redressing these problems for musicians and other artists. It is a superior way to achieve progressive social change about the meaning of work and productivity.
During the 1960s, the French government adopted a very unique and sophisticated policy for dealing with artists and technicians who face high levels of uncertainty in their employment relationships. The system provides income support for performing artists during periods of unemployment.
This scheme defined the French commitment to performing arts (actors, musicians, associated technicians etc) and a recognition that the arts labour market is highly precarious both in continuity of work and incomes.
It was introduced after a period of industrial troubles in the early C20th.
In his doctoral thesis, French sociology academic Mathieu Grégoire from the Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense extensively studied the evolution of ‘l’intermittence du spectacle’.
It is available from the Paris-based Institut Européen du Salariat (European Institute of Salaried Workers), which publishes research and promotes the cause of employees (including advocacy for full employment), has
[Reference: Grégoire M. (2009) Un siècle d’intermittence et de salariat. Corporation, emploi et socialisation. Sociologie historique de trois horizons d’émancipation des artistes du spectacle (1919-2007) , LINK.]
His story begins on Sunday, September 28, 1919 when a crowd was waiting in the rain outside the doors of “le théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt” and, eventually, they were told by the stage manager that the show was cancelled because the performing artists through the aegis of their union had initiated a general strike.
[Note: I am paraphrasing his work via my own translation rather than quoting his French text and then providing the translation – to save space. But the attribution should be recognised as belonging to the author].
He recounts that the general strike saw similar scenes – closure due to lack of artists – at all the major theatres such as “l’Ambigu, aux Folies-Bergère, à la Gaîté Montparnasse, aux Concerts Empire et Européen, à l’Univers et à la Renaissance, au Petit Casino et à la Porte Saint-Martin”.
In contradistinction, the cinemas were “salle comble” (packed full).
One theatre – “Théâtre Antoine” – was open because the manager had signed the standard union contract supporting the artists which contained the famous “numéro 1” clause which prohibited the use of non-union labour.
The general strike aimed to force all theatre owners to sign the union contracts. The action had some success with an increasing number of theatres signing on.
Musicians agreed at the time to boycott their colleagues (considered to be traitors or scabs) who worked despite the strike order. He writes “Les musiciens veilleront à l’application de cette décision et jamais ils ne joueront avec des traîtres”.
At the time, the theatre owners rejected the idea that performing artists could form a union and receive a common wage. They argued that talent differentials were so great that a minimum wage was invalid. The employers wanted purely market determined wages in a situation where the demand for labour was clearly less than supply (meaning wages would always be depressed).
Moreover, they were affronted by the idea that restrictions could be placed on who they employ. At the time they said:
Nous engagerons qui nous voudrons et qui voudra l’être.
“We will hire who we want and who will work under our conditions” – a familiar refrain throughout history in this labour market. The employers claimed the artists should aspire to become professionals rather than welfare recipients.
Fast track to Thursday, June 26, 2003, when the general secretary of the la Fédération du spectacle comes out of meetings with employers to announce that the last round of negotiations over Annexes 8 and 10 of l’Unedic’s system of unemployment compensation for artists have been changed.
The employers (theatres etc) had claimed they were no longer willing to pay compensation when artists were unemployed, which was part of the ‘l’intermittence du spectacle’ agreement that was motivated by that 1919 general strike.
The owners claimed that the artists were basically unwilling to work and were content to be shielded from work by the compensation system – a familiar refrain in this neo-liberal era. They claimed that a person should aspire to stardom rather than accept the status of a permanent intermittent.
The changes (retrenchments) threatened the survival of 30% of the so-called “intermittents” (artists working under the ‘l’intermittence du spectacle’).
L’Unedic (union nationale interprofessionnelle pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce) is the outsourced organisation that manages the system of unemployment compensation in France, which was created in 1958 after a call from President Charles de Gaulle for a means to protect workers when they lost their jobs.
It comes to agreements with employers on the parameters of the scheme. L’intermittence du spectacle was absorbed into this scheme in the 1960s and came under the responsibilities of l’Unedic.
The chairperson of l’Unedic (a representative of the employers) claimed during the long strike by performers in 2003 (which forced the cancellation of the famous Avignon Festival) that:
la noblesse de ces métiers, c’est d’être artiste ou technicien et de vivre de son métier de technicien ou d’artiste et non de l’assurance-chômage
(the nobility of these trades is to be an artist or technician and to live by their work as a technician or artist and not by unemployment insurance)
Back to 1936, when the disparate organisations that represented performing artists amalgamated into a single union – la Fédération du spectacle, which set about enforcing collective agreements with employers on behalf of the performing artists.
This was a game-changer because it meant that once a collective agreement was signed, the enforcement of it came under the aegis of the Government regulations, which enforced compliance on employers, who in this sector were notorious for exploiting the workers.
The French government at the time was also pro-worker so these changes were meaningful to normal workers.
But the problem still remained that performing artists are ‘intermittent’ employees and are distinguished from normal employees in three ways:
1. they work for many separate employers.
2. they experience irregular employment with periods of unemployment.
3. receive variable rates of pay.
To some extent, the union was able to achieve collective agreements that reflected the rights of artists to some certainty in income and holiday leave etc despite facing regular periods without specific work.
But the labour law protections really only applied to workers in normal employment who make regular contributions to trade unions. Intermittent employees were unable to enjoy the same level of protection.
On June 20, 1936, the French government acceded to the demands of the performing artists to reduce the precariousness of their working lives and legally recognised these artists as ‘intermittent’ employees (‘l’intermittent du spectacle’).
Theatre owners had also pressured the Government to create this status as a way of reducing their own costs in the face of growing industrial conflict over the conditions of work in the industry and the inability to get theatre technicians etc who preferred to work in stable conditions.
There were some concessions under tax law as a result of this new status.
The struggle on behalf of the intermittents continued. In particular, the union argued that there should be an employment guarantee for performing artists which would force employers to maintain on-going employment even between shows. In part, it was argued that performing artists were not paid for rehearsal time, which should be seen as being integral to the actual performance.
Things didn’t really change until 1965, when Annexes 8 and 10 of l’Unedic were established, reflecting the Government’s desire to bring all workers within the unemployment benefits system.
The first step was to include cinema workers under Annexe 8. Further, artist categories were added in 1968.
The next major step came on February 28, 1968 when the Secrétaire d’Etat aux Affaires (Jacques Chirac) approved Annexe 8, which effectively created a general unemployment benefits scheme.
Accessing unemployment compensation by the performing artists required them to satisfy conditions including working 1000 hours in the previous 12 months, which effectively excluded a whole raft of performers. It also meant that performing artists were being treated quite differently to other workers who only had to contribute to the scheme for 520 hours.
In 1979, reforms to the system meant that the unemployment contribution system and the government funded ‘régime de solidarité’ were brought together, which meant that intermittents who could not make the requisite contributions to the scheme could still receive benefits, paid for by the state.
Effectively, l’Unidec became responsible for paying intermittents while they were in between jobs and the government would fund long-term or chronic joblessness. That system was formalised in January 1984.
It was opposed by employers who maintained their usual arguments about pride in artistry etc. They claimed that l’Unidec was not meant to just underwrite the performing artists who should either become professional and make a living or do something else.
As neo-liberal forces became more dominant in France (as elsewhere), the Government, which had traditionally supported the intermittents, began the backtrack and move towards satisfying the demands of the employers.
When Jacques Chirac was returned as President on April 21, 2002, the signals were clear. Major cuts to the welfare system would be initiated including the restructuring of the system of unemployment benefits.
This attack on the victims of job shortage was almost universal in the Anglo and non-Anglo world. It reflected the growing ideological dominance of the free marketeers who wanted the unemployed to operate as a reserve army and force down wages for those with jobs.
The unemployment benefits extended to intermittents became one focus of the employer struggle to retrench the welfare system and to reduce their financial involvement in it.
When Annexes 8 and 10 expired in 2001, the employers refused to agree to a continuation.
By 2003, the unions were forced to accept a reduced benefits scheme, which effectively made it harder for performing artists to gain access to the income support while in-between assignments.
The intermittents had to be able to demonstrate they had worked for 507 hours over 319 days to qualify for a reduced benefit paid for by the French government when they are unemployed.
Industrial action began leading to the general strike of 2003.
The evidence is that the changes to the scheme has led to the increased casualisation of the intermittent wage earners and did not reduce the public outlays because of the rising unemployment of such workers (Source)
But in this era of anti-union politics, further cuts to the scheme came in 2014.
The employers (such as the theatres and private TV stations) were able to exploit the changes and access skilled labour without the reciprocal need to provide security or adequate compensation for rehearsal time etc.
The problems (renewed) for the intermittents were just beginning however.
The austerity mindset that has been imposed on Eurozone governments has become a major threat to the intermittents.
In this UK Guardian article (July 30, 2012) – European arts cuts: France threatens to pull plug on creatives’ special benefits – we read that:
The element of the French arts scene likely to be squeezed the fastest is also the most incendiary: France’s special unemployment benefits for actors, performers, musicians and technicians …
Currently 100,000 creative workers benefit from the special unemployment system, but it is running at a huge deficit of around €1bn. The state auditor recently identified “massive and persistent” problems in the system, including abuse of it – often by employers – and warned it “is not sustainable in the current context of public finances”.
Just in case you think this a huge proportion of unemployment benefit recipients, the data shows that intermittents constitute only 3.5 per cent of the total unemployment benefit recipients.
And then the situation deteriorated further.
Many of the festivals and theatres, which employ intermittents depend on state subsidies for their solvency.
In an article (Marh 15, 2015) – Une « cartocrise » des festivals annulés – the French newspaper Le Monde catalogued (and mapped) more than 100 festivals that had been cancelled in 2015 as a result of the withdrawal of public subsidies.
A compounding factor identified is the falling ticket sales as French citizens squeezed by austerity and unemployment are also increasingly forced to cut ‘non-essential’ expenditures in order to survive.
An updated list (April 28, 2016) – La très (trop) longue liste des festivals annulés ou supprimés (the very long list of canceled or cancelled festivals) – shows how far the malaise has extended.
The neo-liberal era has thus been characterised by this two pronged attack on workers:
1. Cut public spending which creates higher unemployment, higher underemployment and casualisation and suppressed wages.
2. Then, cut the income support systems claiming they are nonviable because of the increased demand for state support.
The problem for the intermittents is that they are already at the margin of vulnerable workers as a result of the precarious nature of their work.
A large portion of the labour demand for their services depends on public spending, such is the nature of cultural activities.
Trade unions have also not helped much. They make a noise when car workers are rendered obsolete by plant cuts or closures but when it comes to low-paid, precarious performing artists, the noise amounts to a silence.
The specific behaviour of the unions in the 2003 strike in France by performing artists was appalling and their leadership rolled over when the government proposed cutting benefits.
Further, it should be promoted as part of public education that performing artists might be contracted for a certain period of the year, but serious artists work all year round on their craft. The performance is, in fact, the tip of the iceberg.
The whole concept of an intermittent is flawed as a result. Performance rates should reflect the ‘unpaid’ hours that are essential and intrinsic to the performance.
A further problem is that performing artists face the on-going problem of being undercut by younger performers who are willing to work for little reward in the hope that they would fulfill their dreams and become stars. This problem has always confounded the sector.
Employers clearly exploit this excessive labour supply to keep wages and conditions of employment suppressed.
I have worked in this sector as a musician since my teenage years and for several years depended on that work for survival. It is very difficult to compete against 15 year olds with a guitar that can make a noise who are willing to work in clubs for free.
Universities used to be major employers of bands and musicians (at union nights and lunchtime concerts etc). They still are but no longer pay much. I was told the other day by a booking manager at a leading university that they could put on free acts every day of the week such is the willingness of young musicians to get exposure.
Trying to negotiate union rates in this environment is almost impossible. That is one reason my band doesn’t work as much as it used to.
Performing artists are also attacked for being dole bludgers and tax evaders, given that much of the sector is ‘cash only’.
In the 1980s, the joke around the scene used to be that the unemployment benefits system effectively was the primary income support of musicians such was the attitude of employers to paying reasonable rates.
The situation was similar in other nations.
This article from the Independent (June 24, 1998) – Money: Are you ready to rock ‘n’ dole? – reported that Tony Blair’s New Labour was making changes to the welfare benefits system which threatened “dole payments for the young unemployed” who were trying to make it as musicians and performers.
As one industry commentator noted:
… the dole has played a vital part in building the UK pop industry, allowing talented beginners to work on their music for a few years with no distractions. Taking this basic subsidy away … would sabotage Britain’s impressive record of producing internationally successful bands, and hit Britain’s earnings from record sales abroad.
Some of Australia’s best musicians have been forced to rely on the unemployment benefits for survival while underwriting the clubs and record company profits with their talent.
The other threat to musicians these days are the call by the likes of Kenneth Rogoff to phase out cash. His latest book – “The Curse of Cash” – claims that having cash bills available (especially in large denominations) is “used to facilitate tax evasion and crime”.
In an NPR interview (September 1, 2016) – ‘The Curse Of Cash’ Makes Case For A World Without Paper Money – Rogoff (he of the fraudulent/incompetent spreadsheet scandal) – claims that the government is “losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year from cash and businesses hiding the receipts” by paying cash.
He also claims illegal immigrants are also paid in cash which evades national border security – “if you didn’t have employers able to pay off the books and off the record safely in cash, you wouldn’t have illegal immigration on nearly the scale that we do.”
The reality for performing artists is that a lot of the work is cash-based and for many the receipt of a large money note after several hours of performance is the difference between eating or not, given the difficulties that are now faced in accessing unemployment benefits.
It is fine for the likes of Rogoff, who clearly is highly paid in a secure job, to advocate abandoning a system of payment which provides some security (not much) to the most disadvantaged workers.
Rogoff’s concern for tax leakage doesn’t seem to square very well with his past history. When he was the chief economist for the IMF he was forced to concede in 2003 that the financial liberalisation that he had promoted along with others had meant that:
… a number of countries have experienced periodic collapse in growth rates and significant financial crises over the same period, crises that have exacted a serious toll in terms of macroeconomic and social costs …
… while there is no proof in the data that financial globalization has benefited growth, there is evidence that some countries may have experienced greater consumption volatility as a result.
[Reference: Prasad, E., Rogoff, K., Wei, S.J. and Ayhan Kose, M. (2003) ‘Effects of Financial Globalization on Developing Countries: Some Empirical Evidence’, IMF].
He also hasn’t come out arguing that Wall Street banksters should be forced to pay higher taxes and for tax havens to be declared illegal under US tax law.
Preferred option – a Job Guarantee
My preferred option is for the state to abandon the system of unemployment benefits and instead introduce a Job Guarantee.
As I wrote in this blog – The Job Guarantee is a progressive vehicle for change – the introduction of an unconditional public job offer at a socially-acceptable wage to anyone who desires to work and cannot find acceptable employment in the non-government sector can become a progressive force for change.
In my view, the major employers of performing artists do not pay the full cost of the performances they profit from. They are like firms that try to evade minimum wage laws.
I consider the Job Guarantee to be part of an overall progressive socio-economic strategy aimed at achieving fundamental social change away from individualism towards a caring collectivism where the economy is driven by us to deliver benefits to the planet and the people who occupy it.
I believe it to be a superior option to the provision of a basic income guarantee. See the blogs under the Job Guarantee category for further discussion of that issue. One specific blog – Employment guarantees are better than income guarantees – is a good place to start.
Work is intrinsic to human existence. We seek to transform nature to live. Certainly, history has evolved to the stage where the organisation of that effort – Capitalism – is oppressive and the anathema of liberation, despite the wage form making it look as though we have freedom to choose.
But we need to separate the specific form of work organisation from the intrinsic meaning of work for people. People will still seek ways to “work” and will have to work, even if we liberate ourselves from the specific yoke of Capitalism.
In summary, I don’t think humans should be treated as meagre “consumption units” and I oppose the use of a Basic Income Guarantees as the primary means of poverty reduction for the following reasons:
- It creates a dependency on passive welfare payments.
- It creates a stigmatised cohort.
- It does not provide any inflation buffer and is inconsistent with the macroeconomic principles spelt out by MMT.
- It does not provide any capacity building. A BIG treats people who are unable to find adequate market-based work as “consumption” entities and attempts to meet their consumption needs. However, the intrinsic social and capacity building role of participating in paid work is ignored and hence undervalued. It is sometimes said that beyond all the benefits in terms of self-esteem, social inclusion, confidence-building, skill augmentation and the like, a priceless benefit of creating full employment is that the “children see at least one parent going to work each morning”. In other words, it creates an intergenerational stimulus that the BIG approach can never create.
Unlike the BIG model, the Job Guarantee model meets these conditions within the constraints of a monetary capitalist system.
The Job Guarantee is a far better vehicle to rebuild a sense of community and the purposeful nature of work. It is the only real alternative if intergenerational disadvantage is to be avoided.
It also provides the framework whereby the concept of work itself can be broadened to include activities that many would currently dismiss as being leisure, which is consistent with the aspirations of some BIG advocates.
Clearly, there is a need to embrace a broader concept of work in the first phase of decoupling work and income. However, to impose this new culture of non-work on to society as it currently exists is unlikely to be a constructive approach. The patent resentment of the unemployed will only be transferred to the “surfers on Malibu” (using Van Parijs’ conception of life on the Basic Income)!
The Job Guarantee in fact provides a vehicle to establish a new employment paradigm where community development jobs become valued. Over time and within this new Job Guarantee employment paradigm, public debate and education can help broaden the concept of valuable work until activities which we might construe today as being “leisure” would become considered to be “gainful” employment.
So I would allow struggling musicians, artists, surfers, Thespians, etc to be working within the Job Guarantee. In return for the income security, the surfer might be required to conduct water safety awareness for school children.
Performing artists like musicians might be required to rehearse some days a week in school and thus impart knowledge about band dynamics and increase the appreciation of music etc.
They might be required to present performances at public festivals where they would normally not receive an adequate payment.
Further, relating to my earlier remarks – community activism could become a Job Guarantee job. For example, organising and managing a community garden to provide food for the poor could be a paid job.
We would see more of that activity if it was rewarded in this way.
The Job Guarantee provides a framework where we can re-define the concept of productive work well beyond the realms of “gainful work” which specifically related to activities that generated private profits for firms.
My conception of productivity is social, shared, public … and only limited by one’s imagination.
In this way, the Job Guarantee becomes an evolutionary force – providing income security to those who want it but also the platform for wider definitions of what we mean by work!
Further, at present, the private sector in some capitalist economies (notably, the English-speaking ones) has reduced unemployment but this has come at the expense of creating increasing time-related underemployment (with implied inadequacy of employment situations).
It is highly likely that the introduction of the Job Guarantee will place pressure on private employers, particularly in the low-skill service sectors to restructure their workplaces to overcome the discontent that their underemployed workers feel.
A full-time Job Guarantee position at wages not significantly different from the low pay in the private sector service industries would appear attractive relative to a private job that rations the worker hours.
In this regard, the Job Guarantee would offer flexibility to workers. Some would prefer part-time jobs while others would require full-time jobs within the Job Guarantee.
It should be obvious this flexibility can accommodate virtually any requirement of workers. Further, it is very easy to design the program in such a way that child care services will be provided by Job Guarantee workers, to accommodate parental needs.
Anyway, social attitudes take time to evolve and are best reinforced by changes in the educational system. The social fabric must be rebuilt over time. The change in the mode of production through evolutionary means will not happen overnight, and concepts of community wealth and civic responsibility that have been eroded over time, by the divide and conquer individualism of the neo-liberal era, have to be restored.
The Job Guarantee is an excellent way to allow performing arts to flourish given it would provide a minimum (and adequate) security benchmark for artists to pursue their craft.
Rehearsal and well as performance would be rewarded.
There are lots of scams one can think up about this system. But they can be dealt with and the benefits of the scheme would far outweigh these problems.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.