‘Gig Economy’ Means Exploitation

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 115, No. 11November, 2015

Tom Olcott

The word “gig” – once confined to musicians – is now mainstream. Pundits everywhere now talk about the so-called “gig economy.” Proponents call it the wave of the future and a transformative moment in the structure of employment. Whether it’s Uber, Airbnb, or the latest digital startup, this form of hiring and employment is touted as a way to liberate workers from economic constraint, enabling them to become the “CEO of their own lives” and achieve true independence. Well, independence from what? The corporate mantra sets it out. Being a gig worker means being an independent contractor rather than an employee, thus paying a higher tax rate on one’s earnings. It means buying your own health insurance. It means relying on your own savings rather than earning a pension. A gig participant has the opportunity, even the obligation, to eschew collective power and action in favor of real American independence. Employers who utilize gig economy workers will be relieved of the onerous obligation to treat them in a fair way and will be enabled to hire the lowest bidder on any job. Those employers will be obligated to those workers only for the specified contractual work and not one bit more.

What cynicism and denial of responsibility! For the AFM and Local 802, the use of the term gig economy has a particularly jolting additional irony. The term “gig,” as described by the web site, has the following meaning and origin:

“Gig – ‘job,’ originally in the argot of jazz musicians, attested from 1915 but said to have been in use c. 1905; of uncertain origin. As a verb, by 1939. Among the earlier meanings of gig was ‘combination of numbers in betting games’ (1847). Related: Gigged; gigging.”

For the entirety of its existence, the AFM has sought to take musicians away from the “gig economy” and to negotiate terms and conditions of employment that provide musicians with the benefits of being employees with fair and predictable wages, health and retirement benefits that are based on employer contributions, and workplace conditions that are not only safe but respectful. Look again at the orign of the word “gig.” The oldest meaning possibly refers to gambling. The notion that corporate America now reveres the system we have sought to oppose for more than a century, and now hold up that faulty system as the future of employment, is morally and economically bankrupt on its face. And workers will also be gambling with their lives. We live in remarkable times. We need to resist.


As most of you know by now, one of the duties of the Local 802 financial vice president is to assist in the production of semi-annual audit of the local’s finances and to report the audit results in Allegro. The Consolidated Financial Statement for the first six months of 2015 was completed and reviewed by our accountants, Gould, Kobrick & Schlapp, PC in late September 2015. The audit report is published in the printed edition of Allegro starting on page 37. Always bear in mind that this report is a snapshot of the union’s finances as of June 30, 2015.

Every year Local 802 officers and the controller meet several times to create the budget. That process considers many factors. The most important ones are: 1) our best assessment of the state of the business and the flow of dues revenues; 2) recognition of future costs (upcoming negotiations, organizing campaigns, public relations and legal needs, building maintenance, etc.); and 3) close observation of prior trends in our budgeting. The primary goal is always to ensure that members’ money is spent responsibly. Considering the above, this published audit should reassure us all. We have been very close to budget in the first half of 2015. Compared to the same period in 2014, dues revenues have declined only slightly, by less than $10,000, including an increase in work dues slightly offset by a comparable decline in membership dues. Our lease revenue for our tenants on the sixth floor has slightly increased as annual negotiated increases operate. Our Morgan Stanley investments show a slight increase in interest and dividend income and a net gain considering the combination of realized gain and unrealized loss upon sale as described in the second paragraph of the controller’s report. Our change in net assets was a gain of $42,945. As I have stated previously in these reports, stability continues to be a form of success when you look at today’s national economy.

We all live in a professional music world that, to many members, seems to be declining. While Local 802 can never immunize itself from larger macroeconomic developments, we will always strive to take advantage of new employment opportunities and preserve and enhance existing work, emphasizing fair compensation, conditions and benefits. We will always pursue and support those efforts. Members are the union and our unity is our greatest strength. Our financial stability can only strengthen that resolve and dedication.


As you know, the AFM is made up of an international organization as well as various locals. But you may not know that the locals themselves are also members of regional “conferences” or groups that meet regularly to discuss issues. For instance, Local 802 is a member of the New York State Conference, which is made up of all of the AFM locals in New York. There are also conferences covering New Jersey, New England, and the collective states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C. (abbreviated Pen-Del-Mar-DC).

At the 2013 AFM convention, the idea was proposed to consolidate some of these regional conferences to make them more effective and efficient. This had already been achieved in the West and the South. So Local 802 and the New York State Conference took the lead to create a new Eastern Conference, which would incorporate the conferences of New York, New Jersey, New England and Pen-Del-Mar-DC. As president of the New York State Conference (a position I just accepted this year), I became party-planner-in-chief, charged with everything from hotel arrangements to bylaw presentations. Those who know me well are surely justified at this point in my narrative by feeling queasy about the prospects for this event. The other kicker here is that the Eastern Conference was being formed from scratch and we had no idea how many participants would care to attend.

We met in Greenwich, Connecticut with a nice-sized crowd, although we certainly would have welcomed more. We managed to collectively create an acceptable set of bylaws and enjoyed some highly informative AFM presentations.

I want to thank Local 802’s Lynne Bond, Robin Donach and Vicki Levy, all of whom dealt with many details of the event in a very professional way. This event could not have happened without their dedicated and smart contributions. Kudos to them and heartfelt gratitude from the Local 802 officers and from the AFM.


After the Eastern Conference, I traveled 175 miles due north to Saratoga Springs, New York, to participate in the first of four two-day seminars required by the Cornell Union Leadership Institute, a program than many Local 802 officers and staffers have attended over the years and which I wrote about in my September column. I remain impressed by this incredibly diverse group of participants, both in their dedication and thoughtfulness regarding their roles as union leaders. The Cornell faculty and the union participants are all striving to make a difference in the world. They constantly reminded us that all union members and officers should take a realistic look at the future of their particular craft and how their workplaces might look in the future. That vision will define the future of Local 802 and the labor movement in general. Every day, we need to ask ourselves about the future of our art and what kind of jobs we envision for musicians in the future. Talk to your colleagues – young and old, familiar and unfamiliar – and see where our future might lie. I would love to hear from all of you on this topic.