For several decades, as union membership declined as a share of the American workforce, union leaders refused to acknowledge the problem.
Union density — the percentage of the workforce that is unionized — was at its highest in the post-World War II period, rising to an unprecedented level of approximately one-third of the workforce.
The reality of the labor movement today is that those numbers have drastically dropped to the percentage of organized labor hovering in the low to mid teens.
Now, from the highest levels of the AFL-CIO down, labor leaders overwhelmingly agree that rebuilding labor’s numbers will require unions to devote more resources to organizing. Indeed, the AFL-CIO has urged unions to devote upwards of a third of their resources to organizing.
The numbers prove that we too have suffered labor’s downward trend.
The membership numbers we once enjoyed over 20 years ago, at roughly 17,500 in 1983, declined to 11,414 by January 1993. In the ensuing decade, the drop in 802’s membership was not quite as severe. Still, we lost over 2,000 members by December 2003.
I am pleased to report that in this administration we have begun to reverse that trend. Local 802’s numbers are on the rise and we have now regained our distinction as the largest local in the AFM.
If we are to build real strength in the workplace, to regain and, yes, even surpass, the union’s power of old, we must be willing to make the changes necessary to meet the challenges of a dramatically changed industry.
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
It is reasonable to say that there is 100 percent union density in the Broadway field. Every Broadway show is covered by the master contract with the League.
However, producers’ ongoing attempts to reduce the sizes of Broadway orchestras not only threaten a cherished art form, but also represent a real and calculated attack on the union.
While we do not yet have an Off Broadway master agreement, our Theatre Department has an excellent track record in making sure that musicians who perform in these productions and venues receive the union wages and benefits that they deserve. Our organizing successes Off Broadway have established an industry standard that puts us in the best possible position to ultimately negotiate a master agreement.
The resident orchestras of Lincoln Center — the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, American Ballet Theatre and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra — are, of course, all union orchestras. Their contracts are strong because they are union contracts. They are also high contributors to the resources of this union and therefore must be part of the decision-making process concerning the future course that will be set for their union.
Because of the many orchestras and ensembles that play in Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Lincoln Center, and other live music venues in New York City, we must be vigilant in our efforts to maintain a level playing field. Groups coming in from out of town that rent these venues must not undercut union scale. Again, we have a great track record in this regard.
Although we have major club date agreements, we have lost density in this field. As DJ’s — the club date industry’s version of the virtual orchestra machine — have overtaken much of what was once an exclusively live field, our ability to set an industry-wide standard has been under increasing attack as the nonunion sector has expanded. We must renew and prioritize our efforts in this field.
There is much work that remains to be done for the jazz community as well. Despite our flagship contract with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and our contract with teachers in the Jazz Department at the New School, we are years behind in providing these artists with the contracts and benefits that they so rightly deserve. Our “Justice for Jazz Artists” campaign needs renewed strength and vigor.
Organizing the recording field, one of our greatest organizing challenges, requires a national strategy. That is why it is imperative that the major recording locals in the AFM work together, rather than compete with one another, if we are to see any significant progress in this area.
Local 802’s focus on organizing teaching artists, over the past several years, is beginning to pay off. Our ongoing campaign to fight for fair wages, benefits and working conditions for teaching artists is important for a number of reasons.
First, New York City is unique in its diversity and sheer number of music schools, from large institutions such as Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, to many smaller schools that may hire as few as three to a dozen teachers.
Second, for many of our members this work provides a critical supplement to their annual income.
As a result of our successful efforts in this field, we have secured contracts at the New School, Music Outreach, Early Ear, Kaufman Center, Midori and Friends Foundation, and most recently the Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Children’s Orchestra Society.
The inextricable ties between organizing and education require Local 802 to assume a leadership role in bringing labor education to our conservatories and music schools.
It is critical that 802 answers that call so that incoming ranks of young musicians about to embark on a professional career are prepared for the challenges facing all working musicians.
In fact, the students we reach out to today will enter the workforce with the understanding and knowledge that can and may very well initiate the organizing campaigns of tomorrow.
HOW DO WE CHANGE?
We need to create a vision of where we want to be two years, five years and 10 years from now — one that is more powerful, vigorous and representative. But we must first do the internal and external work necessary to realize those goals.
This process must involve not only the elected officers and staff, but also rank-and-file representatives from every area we represent: theatre; symphony; opera and ballet (Lincoln Center and freelance); club date; jazz and Latin; musicians who work in the recording field; teaching artists; and, the music prep community.
The goal of this process is to build a concrete consensus on what needs to be done by the union’s stakeholders — a committee representative of the union’s membership, leadership and staff.
Internally, the process identifies capacities, resources, staff deployment and staff needs. Externally, the process identifies the broad trends, identifies what the union has to do to build its power, identifies targets and creates a timeline.
Selecting organizing targets must be part of a fully informed strategic organizing plan. One that capitalizes on our strengths, works within our resources, and incorporates tactics to overcome any internal or external barriers to effective organizing.
We can succeed with the focus, commitment and cooperation of 802’s entire elected leadership, staff and membership.