Clever Octopus’s unionization efforts in Salt Lake City speak out about potential exploitation within creative and arts careers. As living costs rise, unions are becoming more common among underpaid cultural workers.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT—Most of America’s middle and lower classes know they are bracing for a marathon of “hard work,” compromise, and sacrifice until retirement—if they can afford it. One shred of hope for those embarking on their careers is an adage that rings like a haunted anthem: if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.
While a lucky few may find this helpful or true, the culture of “doing what you love” can oftentimes prime workers for exploitation. Doing something that makes you happy should be compensation enough, bosses may say—especially if you “get” to work within a creative field.
However, pursuing a sustainable income within a creative field has snowballed into a cultural joke, as the United States continues undervaluing “creative” labor. Today, workers are increasingly unionizing in high-profile corporations (Starbucks and Amazon, for example); thankfully, efforts to unionize in smaller businesses and nonprofits have not been lost in the wake.
“Widespread unionization in the creative and arts sectors is long overdue,” says Kayla Sudweeks, a member of the newly formed Clever Octopus Union. “I don’t think it’s a secret that many of us in the creative and arts fields are often exploited for our abilities and are generally not paid adequately for our labor, especially if we are multiple-marginalized creators.”
This, among other reasons, is the motivation behind the unionization at Clever Octopus, a Salt Lake City non-profit whose mission is to inspire creativity and environmental consciousness by selling thrifted and recycled art and craft supplies. The union, which has yet to be formally recognized, began meeting in May 2022 and had their first “march” (unionization statement) directed to Clever Octopus executive director Sheri Gibb on July 6.
The statement gave the Clever Octopus administration a week to write a formal apology for the alleged creation of a harmful/unwelcoming work environment and to willingly recognize the union. At the time of writing and according to the union, the administration expressed a semblance of contrition to the Clever Octopus Union in an email, but had yet to issue a formal apology.
On July 7, the group posted the reasons behind their decision on its Instagram. The list of grievances include a lack of accountability, ongoing transphobia, tokenizing behavior, and a scarcity of transparency and solidarity.
“On July 13 the admin [Gibb, Jen Lopez, and Ashli Kingfisher] sent an email stating that they would recognize our union if we got it officially stated by the National Labor Relations Board,” former employee Logan Rusho tells Southwest Contemporary. “They have since proceeded to hire a lawyer to talk to everyone one on one, requested a hearing instead of allowing an election, and have basically done everything in their power to make sure we can’t be recognized by the NLRB.”
Clever Octopus’s administration didn’t respond to Southwest Contemporary’s multiple requests for comment.
The fact that Clever Octopus’s work has had a positive impact on Salt Lake’s creative community and environment strains the quandary. Its Creative Reuse Center on 2250 S West Temple Street in South Salt Lake makes needed resources accessible to anyone who would like to explore creating art while recycling materials that would otherwise be sent to landfills. They also further community connection for schools, treatment centers, and more through their Octopod Mobile Outreach program. And as the union and management follow the bureaucratic path for progress within this creative labor space, the good work Clever Octopus has done is not dampened.
“I’ve seen what this store can be; I’ve seen the community it can foster and the connections and love that it can create for folks like me,” says union member Samantha White. It’s the union members’ belief in Clever Octopus that focuses their desire to unionize rather than quit, to demand stability from work worth doing—for themselves and those down the line, too. “To me, that’s something more than worth sticking around for, to manifest for the future workers of [Clever Octopus],” White adds.
Since the administration is calling a hearing instead of willingly acknowledging the union, the group filed what are called “election cards” with the NLRB. “They basically say that we want to hold an election with the workers to vote to form a union,” says Rusho, who suspects it’s a tactic to dissolve the union.
Seeking equal opportunity, protection, and sustainability within the workplace has been an obvious uphill climb for the working class. Awareness about the feat has become ingrained in our education, media, and dinner-table conversations. “They’re cutting the pay of the [onsite] teachers, cutting hours, and doing a classic union-busting tactic of trying to force everyone to leave so they don’t have to hold the union election,” Rusho says. “Their calling of a hearing pushes us back a few weeks, but we’re all stubborn cockroaches, and we’re confident we’ll win.”
The NLRB hearing is scheduled to take place today (August 3) and the election will occur soon after.
“We can’t really do anything else until the votes for the election take place. If after the election the admin refuses to negotiate or pull any kind of nonsense, we will absolutely go on strike,” says member Jessica Crook.
The Clever Octopus Union, amid skyrocketing living expenses and stagnant pay increase, hopes to inspire others to seek unionization. “We, as workers, are the only ones keeping the economy going,” Crook explains. “We, as workers, deserve to be treated with respect and paid for our time. We are so valuable. Make your workplace treat you right and unionize.”