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Arts workers across the country are unionizing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Just outside Seattle, there's a small company that makes tabletop role-playing games. It is called Paizo. And over the fall, the workers there unionized. The union is the first of its kind for tabletop role-playing games. As NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, workers all over the cultural sector have been organizing, from music to comics to museums and amid a national wave of labor activity.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Mark Seifter is the design manager at Paizo.

MARK SEIFTER: Which is the company that makes Pathfinder and Starfinder.

LIMBONG: They're elaborate games with long books detailing lore and statistics for characters and playing mechanics and all of that. Seifter says there had been talk for years about possibly forming a union to address issues like pay equity and transparency.

SEIFTER: But they never really came to fruition.

LIMBONG: Then, in September, just before a big trade show, Paizo fired one customer service representative, and another left right after.

SEIFTER: We found out via social media and not because the company announced that two of the most respected customer service people in the company were now gone.

LIMBONG: Kind of an important role ahead of a trade show - Seifter and the rest of the staff were shocked. They weren't sure what was going on. Allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse started spreading online, and staff started talking about unionizing again. Now, unbeknownst to the staff, something else was cooking at the exact same time.

JESSICA REDEKOP: Yeah. Hi. My name is Jessica Redekop. I am one of the Paizo freelancers.

LIMBONG: Paizo has two groups of workers. There's the staff, and there are the freelancers who first write the games. Redekop says she and her fellow freelancers were just as alarmed about what was going on within the company, so they started a big group chat separate from the staff.

REDEKOP: Like, how do we even feel about what is happening and working - like continuing to work for this company?

LIMBONG: Until...

REDEKOP: It ultimately reached a point where it just didn't feel ethically responsible to continue working for Paizo unless something changed.

LIMBONG: About 40 freelancers for Paizo told the company they would not be taking on any new assignments. They wanted the concerns of the staff addressed.

SEIFTER: It was a brave and ultimately self-sacrificing move to show solidarity.

LIMBONG: Again, Paizo game designer Mark Seifter.

SEIFTER: It was putting themselves at risk potentially of some kind of repercussion for this.

LIMBONG: The freelancers standing up for the staff was the leverage the staff needed to form a union. They got in touch with the Communication Workers of America and pretty quickly gained voluntary recognition from the company. Now the Paizo staff is headed into the negotiations process. Catherine Fisk is a professor of labor and employment law at the University of California School of Law.

CATHERINE FISK: The current surge in labor organizing is affecting all workers, including workers in creative fields.

LIMBONG: In November alone, workers at Image Comics announced they'd be forming a union. San Antonio Symphony musicians have continued their weeks-long strike, and a spokesperson for the union AFSCME told me that workers from eight museums across the country have recently gotten in touch to start the unionizing process. Here's Catherine Fisk again.

FISK: One of the things that makes the arts interesting as a site of labor protest is that in many cases, the work is not well-paid. And also, the artists have an enormous investment in training and commitment to their art that makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

LIMBONG: If you're an oboe player, she says, there aren't that many options for you. Or if you love, love, love working on building massive role-playing games, you might be willing to work for less money. But there's a limit, especially during a pandemic.

SHEILA MAJUMDAR: I think there's just a general progression of work increasing, workforce decreasing and expectation of doing more with less, so I think that there's been that kind of dissatisfaction for a while.

LIMBONG: Sheila Majumdar is an editor in the publishing department at the Art Institute of Chicago. Like at Paizo, Majumdar says there had been talks about unionizing at the museum, but momentum only really picked up recently as the pandemic highlighted certain issues - pay, sure, but also transparency and communication.

MAJUMDAR: We talk a very big game in terms of our values, and it's very difficult as staff and workers to see that we're not living up to those.

LIMBONG: Now they've formed the AIC Workers Union and are holding an election to get recognized by the museum. Majumdar says she sees a certain performative quality in how her museum talks about sexism and racism and class by doing stuff like forming equity groups.

MAJUMDAR: But none of these initiatives have any actual weight to them. There's no power behind what they're offering because there's no desire to relinquish power.

LIMBONG: Which is why she and arts workers across the country are organizing in the first place.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.