‘Don’t mourn: Organize!’

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume 113, No. 8September, 2013

John O'Connor
True organizing results in power. Above, musicians and union staff take to the street as part of Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. AFM locals all around the country must invest more time, energy and resources to organize and empower musicians. Photo: Shane Gasteyer

True organizing results in power. Above, musicians and union staff take to the street as part of Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. AFM locals all around the country must invest more time, energy and resources to organize and empower musicians. Photo: Shane Gasteyer

Adversity is often our best teacher. The case can be made that this is true of the AFM, which has finally, facing falling membership numbers, picked up the mantle of organizing as a necessary approach to solving its growth problems for the future. Under the leadership of AFM President Ray Hair, organizing is no longer a misnomer for enticing new members into the union by promising them perks and services. President Hair has repeatedly lectured on the lesson that to organize means to build power.

Last spring, President Hair hired Paul Frank, who has been touring the country with his workshop on organizing, and taking President Hair’s theme to a new level of awareness. Organizing trainings at the various regional conferences have ignited important and exciting conversations between local officers and activists. For the first time in memory, several locals have begun to communicate with each other on the various strategies they have used to revitalize themselves.

For instance, in recent months a series of phone conferences took place between officers and organizers working in locals who have launched “fair trade music” campaigns. A big approach is outreach to non-union musicians, who had previously found little relevance in the AFM. To do this, locals have begun to look for campaigns that are meaningful to all musicians, union or not. One example is how the Seattle local is successfully lobbying the city to allow musicians to load and unload their gear in front of venues by establishing a special loading zone for working musicians.

Under the heat lamp of this new dialogue, President Hair created the AFM Organizing Committee in advance of the 2013 AFM Convention, and appointed me as its chair. Is it too optimistic to say a new day is dawning at the union? Perhaps, but it is not an exaggeration to say that doors have opened where previously there had been no doors.

After meeting with Paul Frank and convening a few phone conferences with delegates who had some experience with organizing, we prepared for the convention with six suggested proposals for the Federation and its locals. The goal is to use organizing as a tool for power and growth in the union. We weren’t at all sure that the 18 delegates who had been appointed to the Organizing Committee had the same view of what organizing meant, so we opened our first meeting with a discussion that involved each member commenting on the relevance of organizing to his or her local or player conference. This led very nicely to the agreement of our six proposals and also resulted in the addition of a seventh. By the time the committee was ready to make its report at the convention, the members of the committee had reached consensus and were enthusiastically on board with moving the committee’s work forward.

Here’s what the seven proposals cover.

  • First, the committee strongly recommends that each local develop an organizing program and hire at least one organizer. The program should include both internal and external organizing; that is, organizing that brings on board new bargaining units and non-members as well as organizing that strengthens current bargaining units and the local union. The committee recognized that many locals may not have the resources on hand to hire an organizer but felt that nevertheless each local should be encouraged to begin working toward finding or building those resources. The AFM’s Organizing and Education Department would assist in training and program development.

  • Secondly, the Federation and its locals need to create an activist member organizing program to involve members in the growth of the union. This means calling on our members to be more involved and to understand the importance of union activism within our own union and with the labor movement as a whole. With this in mind, please see the coupon on the opposite page, which will allow you to get involved in building a stronger union.

  • Another important area of our work is education. Many regions of the country have universities and other educational institutes that offer union leadership training. The AFM and its locals should build partnerships with these institutions to build education programs for staff and members.

  • In addition, local unions need to build stronger partnerships with their central labor councils and community organizations. Article 20, section 13 of the AFM bylaws already requires locals to be part of their central labor councils, but the Organizing Committee feels that a more active role can lead to stronger alliances that can be invaluable in times of needed solidarity for important internal and external campaigns.

  • The Organizing Committee also recommends that the AFM use strategic research as a part of its organizing development. Understanding the music industry and knowing details about employers is vital to forging a winning strategy for organizing. The AFM is strongly encouraged to hire a researcher experienced in collective bargaining who would work under the supervision of the Organizing and Education Department.

  • Organizing costs money and the Organizing Committee recommends that the AFM budget keep organizing in mind. It is essential to budget ahead of time what will be needed for organizing in the coming year or within a specific plan time-frame.

  • Finally, the Organizing Committee sees its work as going beyond the convention. Most committee business takes place at the convention, but the Organizing Committee recognized that especially given the union’s lack of history with organizing, we would have to meet between conventions through conference calls and video chats to assist locals in finding ways to meet the recommendations in the committee’s report.

The sad truth is that this is work that should have started decades ago. But the union’s leadership was not ready for it. The current leadership has done an exemplary job of putting its financial house in order, but had organizing been a priority – especially in previously ignored parts of the music industry – the AFM might not have found itself in the financial straits it now faces, and we would have more funds for organizing.

As it is, the Federation and most of its locals have limited resources for organizing, but, to the credit of its members, the newly formed Organizing Committee did not allow that fact to discourage the important work that lies ahead for them. A little elbow grease and the sharing of ideas and action plans will help to make up for what we might not have in material resources. The committee also believes that resources can be derived from places not previously considered and a discussion about making those resources available will be part of its ongoing work.

Joe Hill, the singer and labor martyr from the early 20th century, famously said, “Don’t mourn: organize.” We in the American Federation of Musicians have spent plenty of time mourning. It may finally be time to build an enterprise out of the alternative.