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How arts workers took on big oil

Climate justice

Seven and a half years ago, a group of arts workers, actors and campaigners jumped on stage before a BP-sponsored Royal Shakespeare Company production to do a guerrilla Shakespearean performance against the oil industry.

The group soliloquized over the RSC’s decision to accept the sponsorship in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster, and BP’s decision to start extracting oil from the highly polluting and destructive tar sands in Canada.

That first performance marked the launch of BP or not BP’s manifesto. Not long after, arts workers picked up the baton, signing an open letter criticizing the RSC for giving fossil fuel companies ‘a veneer of respectability’.

To BP or not to BP?

Since then, BP or not BP has evolved into a larger movement of disparate campaigns involving arts workers like myself. We’ve pressured our employers to divest from extractive industry and sever fossil fuels’ hold over the arts because of its immense power to give them a ‘social license’ to pollute.

Last week RSC cancelled their partnership with BP, and my employer, the National Theatre, followed suit, dropping its sponsorship with Shell. This was partly in response to pressure during the schoolchildren’s strike for climate on 20 September, when I, my colleagues and staff at the Tate, Southbank Centre walked out of the National Theatre under the banner ‘Art workers support the Climate Strikers’, accompanied by Art not Oil activists.

The victory is huge, and should be celebrated. But the art world still has a long way to go. Discussions about sustainability in arts institutions need to go beyond reducing carbon footprints and using reusable cups in their bars to thinking about it how it treats its workforce.

Arts workers are workers

The pressure to recognize the links between art and the conferring of legitimacy of its dodgy sponsors has always come both from activists on the outside and from below – from the workers. I took part in the climate strike because the scale of this ecological crisis demands more from us; it demands a momentous cultural shift.

Yet that labour and effort comes with a price. Like my colleagues, my working life is plagued by insecurity. I work erratic shift patterns across a range of venues. Fragmented working hours have meant I juggle roles across multiple venues: I make films, I teach, I serve drinks, I tear tickets. The challenge is not in the execution of these roles, but in reconciling them.

As an insecure worker, I’m acutely aware of the passage of time. My working days do not come in 9 to 5 stretches but in broken, unmanageable pieces. My schedule is a feat of administration cobbled together in a frenzy every week. This intricate balancing act of paid and unpaid work is eroding my bank balance, my time and my mental health. My attention is pulled in so many directions that I’m increasingly robbed of the ability to engage with the world around me – and that makes it harder to feel rage at its destruction.

As a climate activist, I also feel short of time. A year ago, a report  by UN climate body the IPCC told us we had just 12 years to avert the worst effects of climate change. Now it’s 11. The frenetic pace of my working hours seems to mirror the gathering speed of climate breakdown, while meaningful political action to confront it crawls at a snail’s pace.

Industry of alienation

Last year, I ushered a show called Hadestown – a musical retelling of the Orpheus myth, in which hell is a factory floor. The underworld is run by an army of workers who are so downtrodden they don’t lift their eyes. I don’t work in a factory in leather overalls, and I can’t say ushering makes me break a sweat, but there was something in this analogy that resonated with us as the staff at the theatre.

Financial Insecurity chips away at your self-esteem. Mental and physical health problems among my colleagues are rife. In 2016, a colleague who had been battling with depression committed suicide. Tributes at his memorial revealed a rich creative life, but he did not see his own value. A significant number of my colleagues across different venues are on hefty doses of antidepressants. This summer, a close friend’s ex, an aspiring actor, threw himself from Waterloo bridge.

It feels like there’s a heavy price to be paid for creativity in a society which fetishizes enduring exploitation for the faint promise of success.

Insecurity is alienating; it inhibits your ability to connect with others. Although I have many colleagues, our schedules mean that contact between us is minimal and superficial – forging a relationship without a shared routine is impossible.  Absorbed by our private anxieties, breaks are used for checking phones.

I recognize that flexible working has allowed me to participate in the climate movement. These bursts of political activity keep me going, although they often end with burn-out and an empty bank account. They are rare oases of meaningful engagement with others so I’m willing to take the hit.

But I am privileged enough that I can just about afford this: I have enough to eat and a roof over my head. Some of my colleagues are not so lucky. One described having an anxiety attack in a supermarket when he realized he couldn’t afford anything. Another, I found doubled over in pain on a shift. She couldn’t afford to be sent home as she wasn’t entitled to sick pay.

Democratizing the workplace

To truly confront this crisis, we need to go deeper. Exploitative contracts and poor pay prevent art workers – and so many other precarious workers – from joining the fight to save the planet, and must be tackled hand in hand with carbon emissions.

As arts workers we understand the power of stories to disrupt norms, to inspire hope. Our arts institutions could play a powerful role in this, but not while we feel powerless to influence them. If we are to maintain the pressure on this blossoming divestment movement, arts workers will need a say.

Our reform agenda needs to be bolder and go deeper. We need to ensure that staff at arts venues are secure enough to participate and their voice is given equal weight.

After the walk out on 20 September, I was contacted by a member of management. He asked me what I meant by ‘a cultural shift that extended beyond cutting back on plastics’. So, I told him that Front of House staff needed to have more agency over their workplace and greater job security to build and be part of a climate movement in the arts.  It’s a question of time, he said.  My response to him was there’s none left. The time is now, we need to lift our eyes from the factory floor.



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