Is it really a good May Day for cultural workers? Unfortunately, it would seem not

Steadily declining jobs, eroded rights, resignation: it doesn't look like a good May Day for cultural workers. Reflections and resolutions.

While you are reading these lines, perhaps during a break in your May Day barbecue, while you are at the beach enjoying a foretaste of summer, or on your couch because you have decided to spend the holiday at home, somewhere in Italy a cultural worker is at work, working to keep the halls of a museum open, conducting a guided tour, managing queues at the ticket office, checking updates on a social account, or simply at home, behind a computer, because he or she has decided to take care of some tasks at home, since the work is so much and it is not uncommon for it to invade even the hours that should be allocated to other activities.

Eurostat surveys photograph a difficult reality. From 2011 to 2016, the number of cultural workers in Italy has been declining: we went from 783,000 in 2011 to 766,000 in 2016. This is a 3.4 percent of the overall total number of workers, which puts us below the European average (of 3.7 percent). And this is when in all major European countries, the number of workers was increasing: in Spain from 3.1 to 3.5 percent (from 563,000 workers in 2011 to 634,000 in 2016), in the United Kingdom from 4.3 to 4.6 (and there are twice as many cultural workers in the country as in Italy: 1,261,000 in 2011, 1,466.000 in 2016), while in France and Germany the percentages have fallen, but the overall number has increased: a slight increase in France (from 885,000 in 2011 to 889,000 in 2016, a percentage down from 3.4 to 3.3 percent) and a larger increase in Germany, where workers have risen from 1,573,000 in 2011 to 1,659,000 in 2016 (from 4.1 to 4.4 percent). However, only four countries recorded a decline in the total number of cultural workers: in addition to us, negative signs in Denmark, Croatia, and Finland. In contrast, all the other twenty-four countries in the European Union have focused on the growth of work in the cultural sector. Not only that: we are also among the last in terms of the percentage of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 engaged in cultural work (11.89%: worse than us were only Slovenia and Greece, with 11.58 and 11.09 respectively, against a European average of 17.87, and we are also last in the ranking for the percentage of young people out of the total number of workers), we are second to last in terms of the percentage of workers with a post-diploma level of education out of the total number of cultural workers (44.20%: worse than us only Malta with 40 percent; the European average is 57.82 percent), and we also trudge on the total number of women working in culture (we are fourth to last ahead of Spain, the United Kingdom and Malta).

Rome, Piazza Barberini, May 7, 2016 demonstration: the last, large nationwide collective mobilization of cultural workers
Rome, Piazza Barberini, May 7, 2016 demonstration: the last, large nationwide collective mobilization of culture workers. Ph. Credit Windows on Art

Cultural work in Italy, in essence, appears to be declining, poorly able (or certainly less able than in other European countries) to invest in personnel with a higher level of education, and largely precluded to young people. Not only that, it should also be pointed out that recent problems to which urgent solutions need to be provided quickly are on the rise. A couple of weeks ago, Patrizia Asproni, president of Confcultura, in an article published in the Journal of Foundations, questioned whether cultural work pays, noting how “distortions by which the cultural sector seems to be affected even more than others” are proliferating: above all, the inability to guarantee adequate economic valorization for the skills of workers in the sector, and the extension of the very harmful phenomenon of volunteers who replace professionals by becoming “surrogate laborers.”

To these critical issues must be added the precarization of the work of those already employed. Think of those who work in cooperatives or service companies: these are professionals who often do not receive pay commensurate with their actual skills, or are subject to contracts that are renewed from year to year, or work on call. And again, it is necessary to point out how the state itself has long since given up investing in jobs: the ministry’s last competition, the one for 500 functionaries announced in 2016 (later to become 1,000 following the passage of the 2018 budget law), is merely a palliative against the wave of retirements that has reduced the staffing levels of museums (often forced to reform opening hours, with closures on Sundays and holidays, to cope with staffing gaps: It happens, for example, in some of the state museums of Mantua, Genoa, Lucca), superintendencies (there are entire provinces that can count on only one art historian official), archives, libraries (also forced to reduce hours). In addition to this, there is the constant recourse to hiring through subsidiary companies that often guarantee no more than a fixed-term contract, as well as the situations, which have already occurred, of delays in overtime payments, or the fact that MiBACT employees, following the recent reform (2016) of the Code of Conduct, are in fact prevented from speaking to the press, and many other situations or special cases that provide evidence of a rather delicate moment. And it certainly isn’ t any better in the private sector, with cooperatives, foundations and companies often unable to guarantee serene prospects for their workers, and just as often offering wages far lower than those in the public sector, and with fewer protections. Just today, workers at the Royal Palace of Venaria Reale called a strike against the reduction in working hours established by the consortium that is contracted to manage the museum’s services.

These are issues that deserve, each one, long and thoughtful consideration: here on Windows on Art we have addressed some of them, and we will address others. Above all, these are issues that cause us to reflect on the fact that we have an inescapable need to assert our rights. To fight for the claims of cultural workers and workers in general. To avoid the disenchanted, passive and surrendering attitude that has affected many workers and would-be workers, especially among the younger generation. To denounce, to inform, to speak out, to spread, to claim, to demonstrate, to fight: this is what is needed. These are the ways that will succeed in paving the way for a brighter future for cultural (and not only cultural) work. May May Day, then, not be, as Enrico Mentana reminded us today with bitter irony, “just the day of the big concert,” just a holiday on which we regret as much the work that is not there as the rights that are constantly eroded and eroded: may May Day become once again a day of deep reflection and passionate struggle. We all need it.

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