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Balance of power between agencies and staff has shifted – is it time for a union?

Is it time workers in the comms business considered collective action?

The pandemic has changed the balance of power between agencies and their employees. Could it provide a moment for an advertising trade union to emerge?

In the last couple of years, trade unions have won a series of victories for digital media, logistics and ride-hailing workers, helping to make those sectors safer and fairer places to work. So, with all the problems facing those working in advertising and marketing, is it time workers in the comms business considered collective action?

”There is a perception of the industry as high-flying and that, because we’re not paid minimum wage, we’re privileged. The fact is, we earn a wage from our labor and that makes us workers,” says Sandra Mardin, a strategist at experiential agency TRO and a member of Creative Communications Workers. ”That structural relationship is really important because even if our circumstances are good, they can always be better.”

Whether it’s ageist discrimination, fear of sexual harassment in the workplace or low pay for junior staff, there are plenty of issues facing the industry that might be effectively confronted by a union.

Eve Livingston, journalist and author of Make Bosses Pay, tells The Drum that union membership is for anyone who ”believes in the power of people working collectively”.

”If you believe in that then you have to believe that it’s possible anywhere, that there are no limits to its power. Obviously there are specific obstacles... but it’s perfectly possible in any workplace.”

Efforts to promote ’culture’ within tech, media and marketing by way of ”fancy offices... sweetie machines, yoga classes and fairy lights everywhere” have helped head-off efforts at collective action in the past, Livingstone says. ”That can be a specific challenge for newer, digital organizations. That’s quite an insidious way of undermining the power of a union: ’We don’t need a union, we’ve got this amazing culture, we’re all family here.’”

Until recently, there were few places that people working for ad agencies, or on a brand’s marketing team, could go. In part, that was down to the size of the advertising and marketing industry, relative to other sectors of the economy. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most trade unions formed within industries that employed millions of workers.

According to the History of Advertising Trust, there were just a few hundred people working in advertising at the turn of the last century, and by the early 1930s fewer than 10,000. In contrast, there were estimated to be almost 200,000 people working in advertising and marketing during the last decade in the UK. Livingstone says: ”Advertising and marketing is relatively new in historical terms, as a major workforce.”

The same was true for digital media and tech, until staff at Vice and Vox formed their own unions. ”They’ve been really powerful. They’re working in new sectors but the tactics they’re using and the arguments they’re making are the same ones that unions have been making for generations,” says Livingstone.

In short: while marketers wanting to organize back in the day were too few, now they are many.

There are existing unions that welcome workers from the advertising and marketing sectors. Britain’s National Union of Journalists, for example, has a branch for PR workers. And the Communications Workers Union, which historically represented the interests of those working in communications infrastructure – postal workers, for example – launched a branch for tech workers just last year that already numbers marketers and agency workers within its ranks. But there has not been a trade union dedicated to the ad and marketing business in its full breadth available to workers to date.

Mardin and her union colleague Sammi Ferhaoui, an account manager at Havas London, hope to change that. They helped found the CCW last year, hoping to create a union for anyone employed in advertising and marketing, including full-time staff, part-timers, freelancers and those at the precarious end of the sector, such as caterers, cleaners and security guards. ”Our ambition is to be for everyone in the building,” says Ferhaoui.

Though it has only been operating for a short time, the CCW has almost 40 members and has affiliated with United Voices of the World (UVW), an independent union founded back in 2014. The affiliation has meant CCW’s organizers haven’t had to build the union from scratch, but have been able to borrow the structure and model of the UVW; it’s already been able to offer members legal services in their disputes with employers. And although the union movement is far older than the ad business, the CCW is a modern campaigning organization; its membership gathers on a Discord server, and it maintains a feisty Twitter presence.

Ferhaouisays it was set up with three main issues in mind – pay transparency, working conditions, and diversity, equity and inclusion. He says: ”Currently, everything is left to an individual to battle for these three things. We feel there’s real strength in numbers.”

While the topics overlap, they’re critical elements of making careers in marketing and advertising more bearable over a working lifetime, says Mardin. She also argues they’re obstacles to new workers joining the ad business: ”Unpaid overtime can have a knock-on effect for you if you have caring responsibilities later in life. The industry is very short termist. There are situations where people’s life developments are not taken into account, people can’t see a future, or they get too expensive to keep on – the industry is quite comfortable when people age out. In that scenario it’s no wonder that people don’t want to come into something they can’t see maintaining until later in life.”

While Mardin says the success of unions at Vice and Vox has been inspiring, CCW aims to recruit members across agencies and the industry as a whole, rather than focusing on organizing at specific workplaces. ”It’s not that we don’t want to be doing that now,” Ferhaoui explains. ”It’s because we’re working in a competitive service industry where different agencies are competing with each other.”

If one agency unionizes and another does not, he points out, clients might prefer non-unionized workers – undermining the collective effort. ”It’s important that we build the biggest presence possible among all workers in the industry,” he says.

Mardin argues that union membership can be in the interests of employers, too. ”The job of a union is not necessarily to antagonize employers but to work with them,” she says.

CCW’s work has taken on a new urgency amid shifts in the power balance between employees and employers, says Ferhaoui. ”The job market being as it is, it’s a great opportunity because the balance of power is with workers more than it has been in forever, at least when it comes to advertising. But a lot of people are responding to it as individuals, by job shopping – just going for a slightly bigger salary or slightly better conditions. But if we want to achieve lasting change, we need to harness this opportunity collectively.”

The so-called ’Great Resignation’, Ferhaoui says, ”has given our efforts a kick”.

”We’re trying to seize the moment as best we can. That’s our call-out to workers across the industry thinking of organizing with us – now is the time.”

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