BECTU Union’s Philippa Childs: “It does feel as if our whole infrastructure is creaking.”
The strike – and the threat of striking – should be celebrated precisely because it underpins many rights and freedoms we now take for granted.
It is the second morning of the Royal College of Nursing strikes and after a challenging few years, Philippa Childs, Head of union BECTU is usually an optimistic person.
But after a year of total pandemonium, it’s hard to see the light. “I must admit I feel quite pessimistic at the state of the country generally. It does feel as if our whole infrastructure is creaking,” Childs says, as we talk on Zoom.
BECTU is the UK’s media and entertainment trade union; sectors covered include broadcasting, film, independent production, theatre and the arts, live events, leisure and digital media. Unions stand up for the workforce in good times and in times of trouble.
Why does she think the government view culture as a burden and not an investment? “We have written to the government on a number of occasions to ask them to meet to address the concerns of our members.”
“Of the Secretary of States who have been in place since I’ve been in this role, I don’t think any of them have taken up our offer to meet,” she says, with a shrug.
Still, there have been 11 UK culture secretaries over the past 12 years and arts-funding has been repeatedly cut amidst the recovery from the pandemic.
“I get the impression talking to the new SOLT and UK Theatre CEO’s, Claire Walker and Hannah Essex, I think they are a breath of fresh air, by the way – are happier to talk to us about the broader challenges in the industry and are committed to proper engagement with us,” Childs says, not mincing her words.
“When I took up this role we had 30,000 members across the creative industries, we now have 37,000. Our industry does rely on freelancers such a lot and the growth has largely been in that area,” she says. “People have a better understanding that they need a collective voice.”
Childs is, understandably, proud.
“Our members working in live events and film and TV work incredibly hard,” she stresses.
What then are the biggest misconceptions of joining a Union? “Probably the whole thing about strike action. I think people don’t necessarily understand the law and how difficult it is to take strike action.”
“I suppose my approach has always been to be very close to what members are experiencing and what they actually want to achieve, as opposed to pursuing more political agendas,” says Childs.
Still, the financial realities of repeatedly taking home lower pay packets can begin to weigh on individuals.
Performers’ union Equity recently organised rallies and delivered letters of protest at Arts Council England offices as a result of ACE cutting £50m a year from arts organisations in London in its 2023-26 settlement, to fulfil a government instruction to divert money away from the capital as part of the levelling up programme.
“It’s a difficult time for everyone, I think,” she says. “We have to keep our campaigns going, and we need to make the case for why investment in the creative industries makes economic as well as cultural good sense.”
A recent survey from BECTU outlines low pay, long hours and poor work-life balance as key issues driving the continued skills shortage plaguing the UK’s theatre sector.
The survey found that almost all respondents (94%) felt the industry relied on a “show must go on” attitude at the expense of workers’ welfare, while 89% of workers believed employers had unfairly appealed to their goodwill to pressure them into doing work beyond their remit.
Childs – the first female head of BECTU – talks of creative arts workers that are “at breaking point” and stresses that “the industry cannot expect them to remain ‘for the love of the job’ when there is better working conditions and flexible working lives to be found elsewhere.
She says that “there needs to be some real progress around addressing the chronic issues facing the sector.” And she craves “some sign of recognition” from central government that the arts are of value and important.
Joining a Union isn’t a sin; it’s a key to a society less beset by injustice than our own.
Childs adds: “We don’t think that poor work/life balance and low pay are intractable. Our members who work in theatre are very concerned about long working hours, bullying and harassment, too.”
For more information or to join BECTU visit https://bectu.org.uk