Cairn: a new association for performing arts professionals

As committed trade unionists and passionate campaigners, it was not easy to quit the Scottish National Equity Committee. Our union membership, in an industry where sometimes the only protection a creative worker has is their union, has been invaluable to us.

However, we found the staff restructuring proposals presented last year to be unconstitutional, unnecessary and unfair. Additionally, they were forced to pass without consultation with members, during a global pandemic that was wiping out the industry.

As a committee, we came up with carefully considered alternatives to the proposals and engaged in a lot of discussion and reasoning. Unfortunately, the Secretariat stuck to its parameters and the hammer fell on the “over-resourced region” of Scotland.

This left us with the conclusion that our opinions were not valued and our voices would always struggle to be heard. Our member-driven union had gone astray and with heavy hearts we resigned from the committee and resigned from the union entirely.

Lay the foundations

There is no alternative professional body for actors, so after our resignations we found ourselves politically homeless. But as the pain and confusion disappeared, we saw an opportunity. What had seemed so painful became a catalyst for a new organization, where we were able to apply our union principles and continue to be part of the movement we had been part of for decades.

Many colleagues were unhappy with the direction of our old union and it became clear that there was an appetite for something new. Thus, the first stones of Cairn were laid.

Our journey began with the creation of a working group of around fifteen colleagues. Face-to-face meetings were impossible due to Covid restrictions, so we opted for Zoom. We surveyed the opinions of many sectors of the industry, including agents, directors, actors, theater hosts and writers.

We heard candid but inspiring testimonies from people who had successfully created similar organizations. It was clear that building our Cairn was not going to be easy, but the more we listened to our creative colleagues, the more we realized that it was essential.

Unique in Scotland

By fall 2021, we had a constitution, bank account, legal status and, significantly, found a name. We had tried to come up with a catchy acronym. Ultimately, Cairn was inspired by speaking to Scottish language expert and TV presenter Alastair Heather. He gave us a nice quote now embedded in our website.

Cairns are beacons along the way and places of shelter and safety – once unique in Scotland. They symbolize a collective enterprise, built and maintained over the years. It resonated with us so much that we looked no further. Cairn embodies our unity and sustainability.

Cairn is currently run on a voluntary basis by members who have a wealth of professional knowledge. We intend to employ a member of staff, but it is still a long way off. Cairn will provide members with professional advice and guidance as well as representation in litigation, negotiations and legal matters.

We have already started to engage with employers and organizations exploring where we can work together to improve working conditions for performance professionals in Scotland.

try to stay innocent

Cairn is a trade union in the sense that any group united by a common interest or purpose can be called a trade union. As stated in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to establish and join trade unions for the defense of his interests”.

Cairn is a grassroots, democratic, member-driven organization and will only move to certified union status if the members decide and vote that it is the right move for us. Membership is open to anyone working in the performing arts in Scotland.

We welcome members from all areas of professional expertise – actors, managers, directors, designers, producers, dancers, models and voice artists. We also hope to attract those who feel unrepresented in other professional bodies in Scotland, such as theater facilitators, storytellers and participatory artists.

We are very aware that our industry can be a stressful and lonely place. We want Cairn to provide a sense of community and belonging, and an opportunity to be part of a positive movement. In Scotland, there is also talk of new associations of directors and theater agents. In an ideal world, all of these professional bodies would work together as an artistic network. In a country the size of Scotland, this is entirely possible.

Since our launch last month, our membership has been building day by day. There is a desire for an alternative. With Cairn, we have the chance to shape a whole new professional body. We will learn from historical mistakes, make our own, and learn from them as well.

Someone said at the launch, “It’s wonderful, but please try to stay innocent.” Cairn will absolutely try to remain innocent. We will strive to be an organization fit for purpose, transparent, democratic and worthy of its members.

Julie Coombe is an actress and founding member of Cairn.
@CairnUnionScot | @julie_coombe

Andrew B. Reiter