Art teachers 'paid the same as McDonald’s workers'

Artists join campaign that pushes for minimum-wage hike

As President Obama this week announced plans to extend overtime pay to more US workers, many artists and non-profit organisations are pushing for wage increases, including Andrea Bowers, an artist and senior lecturer at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. “Faculty [members] are making the same amount as McDonald’s workers,” she says. Instructors are paid per course with a semester-long fee, but this hovers around minimum wage if the number of hours spent on the course are taken into consideration, Bowers says.

Bowers, along with other art faculty members in Los Angeles, has been directly involved with “Fight for 15”, a national US campaign to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They identify with other low-wage earners, even though their employment will not see any direct benefits from the increase. Artists have been bringing a visual component to the Fight for 15 campaigns. Many, including Andrea Bowers, Ken Ehrlich, Sandra de la Loza, Matthew Owen Driggs and Janet Owen Driggs, have been creating banners, costumes and slogan designs, and hosting silkscreen workshops at rallies.

In June, Los Angeles became the largest city in the US to introduce a $15-per-hour minimum wage. The implementation will be incremental, with wages rising from July 2016 and scheduled to reach $15 an hour by 2020. The announcement follows in the footsteps of Seattle and San Francisco, both cities that have brought the minimum-wage to $15 an hour. States including Minnesota and Oregon are seeing an increase in their minimum wage as well.

Some in the art world argue that the minimum wage increases do not go far enough. “A living wage is vital for a strong economy and a healthy society,” says Ben Heywood, director of the Soap Factory, an experimental art gallery set in a former 19th-century factory in Minneapolis. “If you can't pay people you shouldn’t hire them.” The state of Minnesota is currently undergoing an incremental increase in the minimum wage, which will see the hourly minimum go up to $9.50 in August 2016, followed by annual raises adjusted with inflation. Heywood says that his staff’s salaries will not be affected because they are already above minimum wage.

The New York-based activist organisation, Working Artists for the Greater Economy, sees only “ ‘pros’ to raising the minimum wage, whether in the non-profit [organisation] or for-profit sectors,” according to an email statement. “In fact, a living wage should be implemented as a minimum base standard across all sectors.” Some artists agree: Los Angeles-based Alli Miller calls the new minimum-wage figure “arbitrary”. “It is exceedingly difficult to survive on the $15-an-hour, 40-hour work week model, let alone nurture a family, artistic practice, both or otherwise,” she says.

But not everyone in the art world supports the increase. Some non-profit organisations are worried that they will not be able to cover the costs. “There is little guarantee that grants will go up,” says Nancy Berlin, policy director of the California Association of Nonprofits. The organisation produced a survey on how the minimum-wage increase would affect non-profit organisations last November, which found that many organisation fear being “forced to either lay off workers or severely cut back hours”.