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Basic Income North Conference Explores Relationship Between Trade Unions and UBI

Why should trade unions support universal basic income, and what can unions do to support the UBI movement? A panel at the Basic Income North Conference 2023 explored the issues.

Photo ofMaddy Radcliff
By Maddy Radcliff Published: 28 July 2023 | 11:52 AM Updated: 28 July 2023 | 12:59 PM
Small child wearing ear defenders sits on someone's shoulders while looking at a large concert at a festival
A basic income could mean some remuneration for those parts of a freelance musicians’ work that often goes unrecognised and unpaid. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Universal basic income supporters in the North of England and across the UK got together at the Basic Income North Conference hosted by UBI Lab Manchester and the Royal Society of Arts.

It included a panel on UBI and unions co-organised by the MU. The panel featured representatives from the UCU, NUS Scotland and UBI Lab Wales and was moderated by UBI Lab Manchester co-founder and University of Salford Lecturer in Social Policy Dr David Beck.

I was delighted to join them to talk about why the MU supports a basic income and what it could mean for members.

Recognising the full extent of musicians’ labour

A basic income could mean some remuneration for those parts of a freelance musicians’ work that often goes unrecognised and unpaid – the creativity, writing, development, rehearsing, grassroots gigging and everything else that leads to the gig, album or tour that the public sees.

Another argument for universal basic income is that it could give freelance musicians at every stage of their career time to prioritise their music work without the pressure of doing a second, third and sometimes even fourth job to survive.

Not just surviving, but thriving in education and at work

NUS Scotland President Ellie Gomersall looked at how UBI can help students specifically. She cited NUS Scotland research that revealed 12% of students have been homeless at some point in their study and around a third of students dropping out are doing so because of their finances.

With working alongside full time study the norm, students also have less time for enrichment activities. This is something UCU National Executive Committee member Vicky Blake was keen to highlight. Educators want their students to have a full and rich university experience, and that includes having the time, energy and financial security to enjoy extracurricular activities. This is something a basic income for students could enable.

In this context, the challenge for student musicians is particularly intense. Student musicians are also early career musicians, having to build their careers in music at the same time as working to support their studies and getting the grades they are looking for. The pressure on students is intense. A basic income would mean it doesn’t have to be.

Empowering people from all socioeconomic backgrounds

Equality, diversity and inclusion is a key area of work for the Musicians’ Union. It’s also a space where UBI has huge potential to affect positive change.

A basic income has the potential to empower people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to become musicians. This would open up the stories that can be told instead of narrowing them back down to only those with family money, countering the effects of government funding cuts for music education and supporting the creation of a broad range of art and music that everyone can enjoy.

This is a crucial point for musicians – and one of the key discussion points in a session on universal basic income at MU Members’ Conference last year.

Make musicians healthier and happier

Easing financial pressures that are often connected to ill mental health, which is more prevalent among musicians and creative workers than the UK population as a whole, is an important argument in favour of universal basic income and has been evidenced by many of the pilot schemes so far.

A basic income could be a lifeline through periods of illness, enabling freelancers to take time off instead of having to work through very difficult circumstances in order to pay the bills. This was a key factor in the original MU Delegate Conference 2021 motion calling on the union to support UBI.

Since it became union policy in 2021, members have further explored how a basic income could support freelancers with caring responsibilities. This is particularly poignant as more and more parents are priced out of work due to the costs of childcare.

Increasing union strength

Co-founder of UBI Lab Wales Jonathan Rhys Williams explored how universal basic income could support union power, in particular collective bargaining. A basic income would make it possible for all workers to reject low paid work, he argues, and encourage union participation by reducing members’ fear of taking part in strikes.

It’s the same argument for musicians. A basic income would enable musicians to say no to low and unpaid work, creating leverage in negotiations and better empowering members to say no.

How unions can support a basic income

Going into the panel I had two questions for delegates:

  1. What is it that trade unions can do to support a basic income?
  2. Is there anything that trade unions can do, that only trade unions can do because our democratic mandates from members?

There was an overwhelming sense that, while not all unions support UBI, a lot of UBI supporters were in unions and that needed a space to continue the discussion. That’s something the MU will be picking up with UBI Lab Manchester and other panellists from the session.

In the meantime, we’re working on a toolkit for members to learn more about a basic income and make the case for it you are. Look out for that later in the year.

More highlights from the Basic Income North Conference

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