Nicole Cohen is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto (Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and the Faculty of Information). She is currently writing a book on freelance journalists and is collaborating with Greig de Peuter and Enda Brophy on Cultural Workers Organize, a project that tracks how cultural workers globally are responding collectively to precarity: culturalworkersorganize.org, nicolescohen.com.
Building Digital Labour Dissent: Tactics and Lessons from the Cultural Industries
Despite the hype surrounding the creative industries as a source of economic growth and employment opportunity, work in the arts, media, and cultural sectors is marked by increasing competitiveness, unpaid labour, and economic insecurity. Researchers in media and cultural studies have been adept at documenting the spread of precarity in the creative industries. Less attention, however, has been paid to the ways flexibly employed workers in these industries are responding collectively to the challenges they face through organizing and activism. Our multi-year research project, Cultural Workers Organize, examines the efforts that cultural workers—including freelancers, part-timers, interns, and the self-employed—are undertaking to respond to precarious work. We have conducted dozens of interviews with activists in Milan, New York, Toronto, London, and Montréal and have investigated initiatives ranging from collective organizing to campaigns, experiments in mutual aid, and policy proposals.
Our proposed talk will present our research in relation to digital labour dissent in two key ways. First, we will highlight some of the tactics through which digital labour capacities and platforms are repurposed by cultural workers to contest precarity. Examples include the name-and-shame social-media methods of intern activists, labour activism apps, and efforts to foster networked solidarities among spatially and temporally disaggregated workers, such as those of the Freelancers Union and Canadian Media Guild. While not all cultural labour is digital labour per se, the workers we are researching face similar challenges to the expanding digital labour force. So, second, our lecture will present lessons from the cultural industries for digital labour.
To comment on the prospects for organizing and resistance in the digital labour economy, we will outline the major lessons we have learned from other groups of dispersed and individualized workers. Such lessons include:
- the potential for building a pan-sectoral labour rights campaign in the creative industries that turns on the intensifying demand for performing free or discounted labour online and offline;
- the need to elevate the profile of what we call “labour policy from below”—to demonstrate that viable policy alternatives are being developed by workers who experience precarity firsthand;
- the necessity of waging struggles over meaning, assessing how workers’ organizations are contesting dominant terms like “content provider” and “intern” as part of their livelihood struggles;
- the promise of “commodity unionism”—understood as a frame for organizing workers across a wider circuit of exploitation;
- and the need to refocus critical labour research on emerging mutual aid institutions, like coworking spaces, that exist outside the bounds of trade unions and collective bargaining.
In sum, our talk will provide an example-supported map of our ongoing research, draw out key lessons for digital labour dissent, and present the hypothesis that flexworkers in the arts, communication, and cultural industries are protagonists of a recomposition of labour politics today.