There are many modern organizations that may refer to themselves as “guilds,” but when it comes down to it, deciding exactly what is a guild (and what isn’t) can be deceptively difficult.

Some “guilds” are actually traditional labor unions that choose to use the word “guild” in their name, like the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents journalists and other media workers who are employees of their respective publications and outlets. Though there are other guilds that don’t cleanly fit into another type of organizational definition, these guilds function in highly contextualized circumstances, usually where workers want to organize, but are prevented from forming a union for one reason or another.

Because of the diversity among current guilds, the definition we'll be working from in this article is fairly abstract, but also simple: guilds are a form of organized collective bargaining for workers who operate independently - though the type of bargaining guilds engage in is distinct from the collective bargaining performed by traditional unions. As we’ll come to see, there’s still plenty to learn from the complex and evolving history of guilds and their effects on how we work today.

A difference in direction

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Unlike unions that focus on bargaining between workers and owners, guilds primarily facilitate negotiations between their own members. These negotiations can be used to set standards for things like general best practices, quality, safety requirements, standard rates, and professional certification. In some ways, these negotiations can embody traits found in union forms of democratic group-decision-making.

When looking for examples of modern guilds, they tend fall into a few broad categories based on what that guild focuses on:

Accreditation guilds - These guilds focus on legal qualifications and create legitimate barriers to entry to professions that have elevated risks of harming individuals (and often involve specific legal requirements). Examples include:

  • The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS)-  The ABMS is deeply involved in the long and complicated training and certification of licensed medical doctors in the United States. They also provide continuing education and certification services to ensure members stay up-to-date on medical advancements.
  • State bar associations - Practicing attorneys must generally be in good standing with their state’s bar association to represent a client in court. Interestingly, the name “bar” comes from the literal physical barrier in some courtrooms that separates the trial area from public spectators.
  • The National Association of Realtors (NAR) - The NAR is responsible for real estate agent accreditations, but also provides educational support and political advocacy resources to its members.

Bargaining guilds - Some guilds function similarly to unions, but largely serve as formal groups  of workers who can’t organize into legally protected unions but still require support when negotiating working conditions with contract holders.

  • The Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA) - SAG/AFTRA is perhaps the largest and most influential American bargaining guild in existence today (it certainly is in the running for longest name). We’ll take a closer look at some of its long history later, but SAG/AFTRA helps its members secure fair working contracts, organize strikes, and hold each other accountable for violating guild standards and policies.
  • Political workers guilds - Legislative workers are barred from forming unions because of their complicated employment status. This particularly impacts legislative aides, who are often seen as “apprentices,” and are expected to make personal sacrifices in vain efforts to demonstrate commitment to their craft. Guilds like the Political Workers Guild of Colorado (which is technically a “members-only” or “minority” union) aim to build negotiating power by leveraging an opt-in strategy (since they have no legal ability to bar participation in the political process).

Facilitation guilds - These represent less-rigid professional associations, usually established between independent peers, but without the degree of formalized structure of bargaining guilds. They can however offer shared benefits to members thanks to their larger bargaining pool. They generally lack the legal licensing aspect of accreditation guilds, though they may partake in informal “seal of approval” accreditation.

  • The Graphic Artists Guild (GAG) - The GAG provides advocacy and other community-building resources in the form of events that feature industry experts, templates for standardized contracts, and discounted personal insurance.
  • Construction guilds - Local construction guilds like the Santa Cruz Construction Guild can provide common standards that members agree to follow (such as fire safety construction recommendations) while also connecting members to prospective clients.

Ownership guilds - Unlike the above examples, these represent modern versions of merchant guilds. Essentially associations of business owners, but not workers, these guilds represent the pooling of economic wealth for the advancement of shared political agendas. While they can function similarly to facilitation guilds in some regards, generally, the support they provide is centered on maintaining competitive advantages for their members by influencing local policies.

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  • Landlord associations - These guilds provide legal and political advocacy resources to rent-seeking landowners. If a landlord needs guidance on how to evict a family who’s behind on their rent, chances are they can find a landlord association to make that possible.
  • Chambers of commerce - Despite the lofty sounding name, “chambers of commerce” are not governmental bodies, but instead private associations of business owners. While they can advocate for their local community with regards to development priorities, they can also be used to limit disruptive competition. Their advocacy could include protesting to keep a national chain “off main street,” but could also involve lobbying for new local ordinances designed to stop newer business from succeeding.

Notably, guilds are not mentioned in America’s National Labor Relations Act, though SAG/AFTRA has been successful in using the NLRA to force businesses to recognize them. This means that individual guild members could be more legally vulnerable because they fundamentally lack the same level of legal protection as their unionized counterparts. Which means that in some ways, a guild must try to leverage (and expand) its own power in order to protect its members. Unfortunately, this tendency has the capacity to cause harm if unchecked.

The first guilds

Guilds can trace their history back to a time before capitalism became the dominant economic force that it is today. This is in stark contrast to modern unions which rose out of crises related to rapid industrialization around the turn of the 20th century.

Arguably, the earliest examples of guilds date back to the Roman Republic when Roman citizens organized “collegia" (“colleges” or “societies”). These proto-guilds were centered around a primary interest that could be religious, philosophical, social, or centered on a particular craft or trade. While the early Roman collegia didn’t survive the fall of the Roman Empire, craftspeople continued to organize through medieval times.

As the world shifted from feudalism to mercantilism, and eventually to capitalism, guilds formed to counter the power that the wealthy merchant class had amassed in Europe. Craft guilds were themselves a response to the rise of mercantile guilds that had begun to multiply the inherent advantages that merchants had over the people who produced the goods that they traded.

While guilds granted early craftspeople many advantages: professional networking, training through mentorship, collective cost-sharing, and simplifying negotiations by standardizing prices, they also introduced a number of practices and ideas that are still harmful to workers today. Perhaps chief among these was the failure to anticipate and disarm potential conflicts of interest.

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Unlike worker cooperatives which teach that all cooperatives should cooperate with each other, guilds have no such unifying ideology and as a result are subject to the ideology of whoever is in authority. The guilds that remain today face their own set of modern challenges that show this ancient blindspot in a new light.

The rise of “the gig economy” would seem to be a perfect opportunity for guilds to re-emerge. After all, our definition seems tailor made for a modern gig worker. But distributed labor networks like Uber, Instacart, DoorDash, or Postmates operate in ecosystems organized by phone app, not by common tradeskills and guildhalls.

By facilitating “independence” from other workers, these businesses make it nearly impossible for those same workers to ever meet face-to-face and much harder for those workers to grow trust and understanding between each other. In an ideological vacuum, why would anyone bother with trusting their own competition?

The limits of guilds

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With sufficient influence, a guild could block the ability for a craftsperson or merchant to do business inside that city, with no obligation to “due process.” And because guilds were organized as formal hierarchies, guild officers were able to discriminate for any reason that they saw fit; rational, personal, or otherwise. For example, guild masters could decide to refuse a journeyman’s application for master rank if they thought there were already enough masters in their city and had nothing to gain by accrediting another competitor. Historically, guilds also demonstrated other, less-defensible forms of discrimination.

While daughters or widows of guild masters were less controversial, women were frequently excluded from guild membership and positions of authority. This was especially true within medical and healing guilds where women applicants had to combat both secular and religious prejudices that dictated that medicine should solely be practiced by men. Similarly prejudiced arguments were used to persecute women healers in other contexts such as the American and European witch hunts and the Spanish Inquisition.

Learning from mistrust

Because guilds are associations of members who also have to manage the realities of their own businesses, there will always be the possibility of a conflict of interest. Armed with the power amassed by a guild simply trying to survive and lacking any sense of cooperation and community, it’s probably not hard to imagine what kind of nightmare could unfold if a bad actor managed to take control of a guild. And if it is hard to imagine, it’s not too hard to find an example of exactly this in American history.

Spurred by hyperbolic fears of the spread of communism after World War II, members of the US House of Representatives formed the “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) to persecute actors, screenwriters, musicians, and other professional entertainers because of their suspected political beliefs. While committees like this had existed before, this incarnation was uniquely “successful.” This success was, in part, due to the type and quantity of evidence provided by anonymous guild members against their own peers.

One such anonymous witness was referred to as “T-10” during the FBI’s investigation in support of HUAC. Thirty years later, it was revealed that “T-10” was, in fact, the president of the Screen Actors Guild. It seems that T-10’s acting career had been waning until finding a central role in the political persecution of the “Second Red Scare.” While many entertainment professionals found themselves unable to work due to organized blacklisting, T-10’s career rebounded, so much so that T-10 was able to pull off a transition from entertainment to politics that few have ever achieved. In 1980, 5 years before being revealed as an FBI informant, T-10 would be elected as the 40th president of the United States - Ronald Reagan.

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By now, it’s hopefully clear that guilds have a long, complicated, but equally valuable history that we’ve only scratched the surface of. While we’ve focused on their potential flaws, for many workers unable to organize in other ways, guilds might be their only option.

If that’s true for you, it’s our hope that you can use this as a primer to help shape your guild and begin to understand some of the larger forces you may have to deal with. And for that, there is no better teacher than the mistakes of the past.