A Fair Shake for Folkies

Organizing Matters

Volume CVI, No. 7/8July, 2006

John O’Connor

Folk concerts are union gigs? They should be and they are! In February, AFM Local 1000, the federation’s only non-geographical local, asked 802’s Executive Board for permission to negotiate with the Pine Woods Folk Club to cover the venue’s main concert series.

Pine Woods runs its concert series out of a church on the Upper West Side where six times a year folk music fans come to hear singer-songwriters and other folk artists touring today’s under-the-radar folk circuit.

According to the tentative agreement reached by Local 1000 and Pine Woods, every musician who works this venue will receive a 10 percent pension contribution based on negotiated minimum scale wages.

One folk club hosting six gigs a year is not going to provide much security, but if a musician happened to play 20 or 30 such covered engagements per year for five years, that musician would be vested in the AFM’s healthy pension fund.

So where are these 20 to 30 venues that will vest touring folk musicians? The answer to that question is imbedded in a campaign Local 1000 is calling “Fair Folk,” in which the “traveling folkie” union is attempting to put in place a myriad of covered folk societies and folk clubs throughout the U.S. and Canada that would make up a network of engagements that would enable musicians to secure a pension without filing single-engagement contracts on their own.

Local 1000 was chartered in 1993 after a group of union activist musicians who were touring the folk circuit organized to petition the AFM to create a local that would be made up of musicians who had in common the kind of work they did — instead of where they lived or worked.

These musicians — myself included — were successful in persuading the AFM to create a federation bylaw enabling the International Executive Board to charter a non-geographical local.

The singular motivating factor that spurred Local 1000 organizers was that they were unable to receive pension benefits on their touring engagements within the structure of the AFM.

Once Local 1000 received its charter, the local created (along with representatives of Local 802) the musical services contract, a single-engagement agreement that facilitated pension contributions where none were available previously. This agreement was later replaced by the LS-1, now available to every local in the AFM.

Using the promise of pension as our most effective organizing tool, Local 1000 launched a member-to-member recruiting campaign which succeeded in growing the local’s ranks from 70 members to 440 — in less than 10 years. More than a quarter of Local 1000 members are regularly filing contracts and receiving pension benefits.

The Local 1000 Executive Board wanted to capitalize on the credibility the local had earned in the folk community by shifting its emphasis from recruiting to organizing. In 2000, the local circulated a union representation petition to performers at the Clearwater Folk Festival and convinced Clearwater’s board to recognize the union voluntarily. Clearwater now is the first ever union folk festival in North America.

The strategy for organizing folk venues sprang from the Clearwater contract. Because short-term employment for musicians is not covered under current U.S. labor law, Local 1000 must secure all their contracts through voluntary recognition by the employer.

So far, two more festivals have given the nod to Local 1000 that they are willing to do just that. In addition, Local 1000 is working on achieving CBA’s from folk clubs in Madison, Ann Arbor, San Francisco and other cities.

Will Local 1000 be successful? The organizers of the “unlocal,” as Pete Seeger (himself a member of both 802 and 1000) likes to call it, went after their local with a leap of faith and a lot of work. With the same kind of dedication Local 1000’s leadership believes it can be successful with the Fair Folk campaign. It also believes that the formula will work for other locals trying to organize freelance non-symphonic musicians. It only requires leadership and vision along with some patience and work. A tall order, to be sure, but certainly not impossible.

John O’Connor is the secretary-treasurer of AFM Local 1000. For more information, see